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High School Students Learn By Creating At South Milwaukee 'Fab Lab'

Rachel Morello
South Milwaukee technology teacher Erik Wolbach displays a community project designed by students in their school "Fab Lab."

The term project-based learning is a buzzword in education these days. Teachers are constantly looking for ways to make learning more fun and engaging, through hands-on experiences that show students how to apply academic concepts in real-world situations.

A pair of science and technology teachers at South Milwaukee High School have found a way to do just that. They’ve started a “Fab Lab,” or “Fabrication Lab” on their campus. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a place where students create with their hands.

South Milwaukee had a more traditional curriculum plan for the skilled trades -- what most people would recognize as "shop class." But technology teacher Eric Wolbach and his administration wanted something more updated. 

"We were thinking about changing our curriculum, doing new and more modern things for the kids -- and we heard about the Fab Lab movement, so we investigated it," Wolbach remembers. "Our skilled trades have become more project-based learning."

Now, the tech ed department incorporates more of what Wolbach calls "21st Century learning skills": creating, collaborating and communicating. Wolbach has laid out a five-year plan for new classes; this marks year two of that transition.

Now, the tech ed department incorporates more of what Wolbach calls "21st Century learning skills": creating, collaborating and communicating.

South Milwaukee had some of the equipment to get the curriculum going, and won a large grant through local construction company Caterpillar to outfit the school with more equipment.

There's a lot going on in the small room that houses the Fab Lab: a laser engraver, 3-D printer and milling machine, just to name a few. It's right next door to a computer lab; anything the students can design on their 3-D computer software, they have some capability to make with their equipment in the next room.

As the lab and programming grew, so did student interest. Wolbach and his co-teacher, science instruction Brittany Jadin, instruct 44 kids in their Level One course -- a big leap from numbers the department saw even a few years ago.

And, the updated courses are attracting students who might not normally be interested in tech ed. 

"We've had a lot of success increasing the enrollment with the girls," Wolbach says. "They used to see this as dumb, dirty, dangerous tech ed. And we've been able to attract a lot of them, because they like the flexibility to create."

"What's cool about a course like this, is that it really sets itself up for dispelling stereotypes," Jadin adds. "[Students] are all working within their own motivations. It's a level playing field, and they really can take it as far as they want to take it."

Not only has this Engineering Academy drawn interest from a more diverse group of students – it’s also spawned mini-feeder programs at nearby elementary and middle schools. Two nearby buildings have Maker Space programs for fourth and fifth graders, and Wolbach is working to get grant money for a mini-Fab Lab in the middle school. 

"The kids spend an hour and a half on a Friday creating and making things," Wolbach explains. "They follow the engineering design process, but outside of that, they're just building and creating."

The courses have also brought teachers from different departments together, to collaborate on projects that get kids thinking about multiple subjects at a time. 

One example: Wolbach's Level Two senior class just finished a project where they designed new games for the school's spirit store. Now that they've mastered the Fab Lab equipment, they're getting into lessons about product development, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Credit Rachel Morello
Board games designed and created by Level Two Engineering Academy students at South Milwaukee High School.

Under few parameters, students created their own individual games. They came up with ideas like "Lunch Invaders,"  based on the board game Sorry!, creating graphics with laser engravers, and game pieces with the 3-D printer.

"They're learning sourcing, they're learning manufacturing and engineering, and they're having a blast!" Wolbach says with a smile. "They surprise me what they come up with." 

Engineering Academy students also participate in community-based projects for local businesses and community partners. 

"There's a lot more motivation behind why they're doing what they're doing"

And their teachers say, it's helping them learn more than just how to use the fancy equipment.

"I think there's a lot more application here," Jadin says. "Students may not realize what they're actually doing. I think about measuring -- it would be tooth and nail to get a kid to sit down and practice..measuring techniques. But in our engineering academy, they'll learn how to troubleshoot measurements to change dimensions for the prototype of their product. So there's a lot more motivation behind why they're doing what they're doing."

"You may hear kids in a traditional math and science course say, 'when am I ever going to need to know this?' But here, it's a matter of, you're seeing it at work, and you're seeing why it's important," she adds.