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Fall River School District celebrated Fab Lab Day in Wisconsin with a large gift from the state.

Fall River was one of 20 schools Monday to receive a $25,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to help improve its fabrication laboratory, which has been renovated and expanded since last summer. In April 2018, the district passed a $7.8 million referendum that provided funding to the fab lab operation, along with several other school improvements.

In all, WEDC awarded more than $500,000 to assist schools in fab lab improvements. According to the corporation, through the past four years, WEDC has provided more than $2.1 million to 58 school districts for technology and fab lab expansion. At Fall River, teachers have added 3D printers, engraving machines, more computers and newer equipment in the shop. The new technology has created more opportunities for students and sparked interest in manufacturing.

“It’s pretty amazing what one year can do from where we were and where we’re going and what the kids can do,” said Fall River High School-Middle School Principal Brian Zacho. “Not being able to say no to a student when they have an idea is pretty awesome.”

At fab labs, students work in a high-technology workshop equipped with computer-controlled manufacturing components such as 3D printers, laser engravers, computer numerical control routers and plasma cutters. According to the WEDC, it received 56 applications through the Fab Labs Grant Program. The program requires matching funds from districts applying for grant funding.

Grant applications were evaluated based on readiness and long-range planning, curriculum, business and community partnerships, along with financial need and previous awards. Applications were reviewed by a committee of personnel from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, UW-Oshkosh and three employees from WEDC.

“The reason why we provided a grant was because of your success already,” said Jason Scott from WEDC. “You’ve really been able to develop a curriculum that offers a lot of opportunities for the students but also partnerships with businesses and residents as well.”

Through the grant program, WEDC hopes students learn valuable manufacturing skills that are in high-demand in the ever-changing job market. Through fab lab work, students are better-equipped to hit the job market out of high school or, if they decide to pursue a degree, have more knowledge and skills going into college. Attendees for Monday’s presentation included representatives from Fall River companies E.K. Machine, Robbins Manufacturing and Madison Area Technical College. State Rep. Jon Plumer (R-Lodi) also attended.

Fall River District Administrator Mike Garrow said the district made a commitment to increase Science, Technology, Engineering and Math offerings for students a few years ago and referendum funding provided a substantial financial boost for that effort.

“Our students are provided an opportunity to take risks, to experiment, and even to fail in an environment where you can use hands-on experiences with technology and projects while developing skills that enable them to be successful well beyond high school,” Garrow said. “We’re in an environment where we have some great business partners around us and it would be foolish not to tap into those resources.”

Brian Anderson, technology education teacher at Fall River, said the grant will help fund the purchase of one or two additional 3-D printers, a Hass Machine Center, which designs and manufactures precision machine tools, additional courses, and to expand cross-curricular opportunities with art, math, and science courses.

In addition, Fall River High School plans to start community classes for adults beginning this fall and a weekly open shop night for students.

“In the evening, we want to allow adults in the community to take a course and learn and manipulate the software,” Anderson said.

Fall River’s middle school students are also building innovative projects in the fab lab. Middle school science teacher Coby Curkeet presented a video showing a rocket made by his students that traveled more than 300 feet. Curkeet, a 2003 Fall River graduate, said the new fab lab is “amazing.”

“I’m jealous the kids get these opportunities,” Curkeet said.

Throughout Wisconsin schools, Plumer said the state must provide more fab lab possibilities for its students.

“We all tend to put ceilings on our abilities and as educators it’s our job to break through those ceilings and find out what your true potential is,” Plumer said. “From the short time I’ve been here this morning and visiting with your staff, I am blown away at this school district and what you guys are doing for their students to reach their full potential.”

Follow Kevin Damask on Twitter @kdamask or contact him at 608-963-7323.

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