A 3D printer at the lab is at work on a student’s creation. (Photo by Roberta Baumann)

Jeff Willauer, technology education instructor at Waunakee High School, calls it a “yes” place.

As he sees it, the district’s Fab Lab, or innovation center, is where students’ ideas take shape, evolving from theory to palpable product.

That happened just last week as engineering students sought a 3-D printer that could produce flexible materials. Using a variety of different parts, they built that printer themselves and produced their first sample.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Commission has recognized the lab’s ability to foster innovation and entrepreneurial spirit and is awarding the Waunakee Community School District a Wisconsin’s Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Labs) Grant.

The district has been planning its Fab Lab for the past several months, and the school board recently approved hiring a director for it. That planning, along with the school board support, made Waunakee more likely to receive the $25,000 in state funds.

According to the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission, the state investments will help fund new fabrication laboratory facilities, “providing Wisconsin’s children with valuable job training and bringing them into the 21st Century’s global economy.”

According to an announcement of the grants, in the 2015-17 biennial budget, Gov. Walker implemented the Fab Labs Grant Program, making $500,000 available to school districts through WEDC.

In response to an overwhelming number of applications, WEDC was able to move an additional $101,000 to the initiative, allowing awards up to $25,000 for 25 school districts.

The Waunakee District received the highest amount allowable in the grant program, $25,000, according to the announcement.

WEDC’s Fab Labs Grant Program requires matching funds from each school district and is designed to prepare students for manufacturing jobs in the future. In addition, the awards support the purchase of Fab Lab equipment for instructional and educational purposes by elementary, middle, junior or high school students.

WEDC received 90 applications representing over $2 million in funding requests. Applications were competitively evaluated based on criteria that included evidence of long-range of planning, curriculum, partnerships, and financial need. The review committee comprised members of Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Technical College System, and UW-Stout along with two WEDC team members.

So far, Waunakee school district officials haven’t recieved a contract for the grant, said Randy Guttenberg, district administrator, so it’s unclear exactly what uses it can be put toward. It will likely be used for equipment purchases, staff training and renovation, Guttenberg said.

School officials have reached out to the community for funding, as well, and have raised about $70,000 for the lab. Last week, the district held an open house and invited business leaders, state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, and representatives from MadRep and WEDC.

The lab is being developed in phases and now holds a few 3D computers in the school’s former printing facility. It also houses computer controlled lathes and other CNC machines.

Greg Benz, the district’s school-to-work counselor, said he was told that districts could reapply for the grants for up to three years. District officials also plan to apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education, Benz said.

Guttenberg noted that the business partners see a shortage of workers. The district also plans to have a business advisory council.

“They will advise us on how to be of service and keep this to industry standards,” Guttenberg said

The goal is to be able to make the lab available for community education opportunities, as well, school administrators said.

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