Southern Door Schools Pave the Way with Cutting-Edge Fab Labs

The Southern Door County School District has embarked on a groundbreaking initiative by embedding advanced fabrication laboratories (fab labs) across all levels of education, from elementary to high school. With the support of four Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) Fab Labs Grants totaling $100,000, the district aims to transform the educational experience by offering students immersive, hands-on learning opportunities that closely simulate real-world environments.

Jessica Meacham’s career journey exemplifies the transformative impact of these fab labs. Initially a first-grade teacher, Meacham transitioned to a STEM educator role within the district, marking a significant shift in her professional path. “I wouldn’t have predicted that my career would change from a first-grade teacher to a STEM teacher working in a fab lab,” Meacham remarked. Her journey began with a modest lunchtime tech club, but the students’ enthusiasm catalyzed a district-wide implementation of fab labs, made possible by the WEDC grants received in 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2021.

The grants, supplemented by district funds, facilitated the creation of fab labs outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, such as 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl cutters, robotic equipment, and computer-aided design software. This advanced infrastructure has become the foundation of a new educational paradigm, with approximately 75% of high school students now participating in fab lab courses before graduation. “In the fab lab, kids are taking part in experiential learning,” Meacham explained. “They are encouraged to be curious and allowed to try and fail in a team-based environment, mimicking real-world settings.” This hands-on methodology has revolutionized the educational experience, enabling students to apply theoretical knowledge to practical projects.

Students at various grade levels have undertaken a range of projects utilizing fab lab equipment. High school students have crafted functional items like trail markers for Potawatomi State Park and centerpieces for community events. Middle schoolers have produced classroom pass lanyards and 3D-printed doorstops, while fifth-graders have designed and tested 3D-printed boats for buoyancy, capacity, and stability. One of the most innovative projects emerged from Meacham’s elementary students, who designed and built scaled-down skateboard parks complete with electronic circuitry for miniature skateboards called “fingerboards.” “Their skate parks were table-sized, and we invited visitors to try out the fingerboards and navigate the obstacles that the kids created,” Meacham noted.

This initiative has not only enriched students’ learning experiences but also led to increased class sizes in elective courses, necessitating additional staff. “Kids always enjoy working hands-on in passion projects,” Meacham observed. “In the upper grades, they tend to engage more in these passion projects because they have more voice and choice in how they use the equipment. We’ve seen an increase in class sizes in elective courses, and we added a position in the high school to accommodate those numbers.”

The fab labs have also fostered a strong sense of community and collaboration. Students frequently engage in projects benefiting local organizations, such as the trail markers for Potawatomi State Park. These projects not only enhance students’ skills but also build a connection to their community, fostering a sense of civic responsibility and belonging. Moreover, the district has established valuable partnerships with local businesses, providing students with insights into real-world applications of their projects. “Our collaboration with local businesses has been invaluable,” Meacham stated. “It offers students a glimpse into how their skills can be applied in a professional setting.” These partnerships bridge the gap between education and industry, ensuring that the skills students acquire are relevant and in demand in the job market.

The integration of fab labs in the Southern Door County School District exemplifies a forward-thinking approach to education. By equipping students with hands-on experience and critical thinking skills, the district is preparing them for future careers in STEM fields. The success of this initiative is evident in the increased enrollment in elective courses and the addition of new staff members to manage the growing interest.

Looking ahead, the district’s fab labs are poised to expand their influence even further. Potential developments include introducing advanced courses and certifications in collaboration with local colleges and universities, providing students with a head start in their post-secondary education and career paths. Additionally, exploring partnerships with tech companies could offer students internships and mentorship opportunities, enhancing their learning experience and providing them with valuable industry insights.

The success of the fab labs may also inspire other districts to adopt similar initiatives. As more schools recognize the benefits of hands-on, technology-driven learning, there could be broader implementation of fab labs across the state and beyond. This could usher in a new era in education, where students are not only learners but also creators, innovators, and problem-solvers.

In sum, the Southern Door County School District’s fab labs represent a shining example of innovative education. By fostering curiosity, collaboration, and real-world skills, these labs are preparing students for success in an ever-evolving technological landscape. The district’s commitment to providing students with the tools and opportunities to thrive in the 21st century is a testament to the power of visionary education. Through their fab labs, Southern Door Schools are not just teaching students—they are shaping the future.

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