When Steve Yahr, director of the Fab Lab at Three Lakes School, is asked why this small, northern Wisconsin school district is home to a program that started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and houses state-of-the-art technology, he has a simple, two-word answer. “Why not?”
He believes the Fab Lab, which opened just prior to the 2014-15 school year, is something all schools should have.
“The Fab Lab teaches so much. It’s not only about the technology and making stuff, but it’s also about soft skills like leadership and problem-solving,” Yahr said.
The school’s Fab Lab includes off-the-shelf, industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools that use open source software and programs written by MIT researchers. When the Three Lakes lab opened, it was the first K-12 fab lab in the state and just the sixth overall in Wisconsin.
The Three Lakes School District didn’t bring the Fab Lab to life by itself. It relied on a public-private partnerships including the Oneida County Economic Development Corp., Grow North Regional Economic Development Corp. and the Northwoods Broadband and Economic Development Coalition.
Students and community members using the lab have access to an assortment of tools, including 3D printers, laser and plasma cutters, multi-axis CNC routers and more.
Area business owners are impressed with the lab and what it offers. Steve Pawelko, co-owner of Advanced Barrier Extrusions in Rhinelander, said it brings an added dimension to local education offerings.
“Personally, I support the lab because I don’t think we in this country do enough with STEM learning. From a business standpoint, I support the lab because I need talent,” Pawelko said. “The Fab Lab teaches STEM skills, but also inspires students to be more confident, motivated and want to learn. Those are all qualities I’m looking for in workers.”
In Three Lakes, students of all ages use the lab, which is also open two nights a week to community members.
“The lab isn’t just about technology, it’s also a mindset. People see themselves as a maker, not just a consumer,” Yahr said. “It helps create a can-do, creative mindset that employers are looking for.”
Elementary school students, for example, used the lab to design and make their own snowflake as part of a unit on snowflakes, while high school students can take elective courses based in the lab.
“Students learn if you fail, you can try something else. Innovation can be messy,” Yahr said.
Angi Schreiber, executive director of Grow North Economic Development Corp., said the Fab Lab brings a lot to the region.
“It teaches soft skills, which is lacking in the generation coming up,” she said. “Our goal is that more schools will be adding their own Fab Labs.”
That idea excites Yahr.
“Antigo and Rhinelander are also looking at one,” he said. “Businesses play a key role and know the labs help contribute to a better-trained workforce.”