Jeff Willauer, tech education instructor, with entrepreneur Nick Mischler and school-to-career coordinator Greg Benz, lead a tour of the site for the new FAB lab at Waunakeee High School. (Photo by Roger Hamilton)

The idea of establishing a new FAB Lab/Innovation Center at Waunakee High School has taken off.

Greg Benz, the district’s school-to-work counselor, can’t believe how fast it’s coming together.

“We were moving at about 25 miles per hour in late November,” said Benz. “Now, we’ve taken it on the interstate and it’s gone from 25 miles per hour to 75 miles per hour.”

The seeds for the innovation center were planted last fall, and the project has recently gained steam after the school board voted in March to hire a director to oversee its operation.

“A community member communicated with (District Administrator) Randy (Guttenberg) and one of the ideas was, ‘How do you promote innovation?’” said Benz.

One option was starting a FAB Lab, based on a concept dreamed up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The space is designed to promote creativity, innovation and ingenuity,” said Benz.

To foster those ideals, those who will use it need the right tools. A place for digital fabrication, the center will have 3D printers, a laser engraver and a laser cutter, and Computer Numerical Control machines.

The high school already has a number of these machines. However, they are spread out in different departments. Organizers of the innovation center want to move them all into one area.

The space being considered for the center is a storage area that once housed the school’s woods laboratory and later its graphic arts department.

In doing so, school officials hope the facility inspires collaboration between students in different curriculums on a variety of projects, many of an entrepreneurial nature.

Benz said he’s already seen technical education and art students working with marketing students on projects. Efforts will also be made to introduce math and science students to the center as well.

Waunakee’s proposed innovation center is based on a similar one already in use in the Stoughton School District. It was the first Dane County school district to have a FAB Lab and only the second nationally to have one.

Another model inspiring Waunakee’s version is Sector 67, a non-profit organization in Madison that serves as a collaborative community workspace for members to develop technological breakthroughs.

With a $25,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation in hand, school officials believe this is “the right idea at the right time,” said Benz, who added there will be a lot more opportunities for grant funding down the road.

Getting the right team assembled is of the utmost importance, according to Benz, as they seek funding to keep the center sustainable.

Initiating the process of hiring for the center right away was crucial, as educational technology teachers are in high demand. In fact, across the state, only four new teachers are going into the field, according to Benz, despite the 59 openings in Wisconsin for these kinds of educators.

Nick Mischler, an entrepreneur and retired physician from Waunakee, supports the plan for the center, feeling that it will be a draw for the community and help its creative economy.

“If we had not seized the opportunity now, it might have been years before we could put it together again,” said Mischler.

He added the center will offer a lot of the equipment entrepreneurs need, and they’ll be able to use it “for not a lot of money.”

Jeff Willauer, a technology education instructor at Waunakee, called it “an incubation space.”

Organizers plan to roll out the innovation center in three phases. In 2016-17, they will renovate the space, set up equipment, train staff, establish processes and procedures and build curriculum for innovation center classes.

In addition, time would be spent forming partnerships with the community and between different departments within the school.

The second phase is expected to span 2017-18. Along with implementation of the curriculum, there would be additional equipment purchases, programming for community and student outreach, growing community partnerships and formally introducing manufacturing work experience for students.

Also, they would start making the facility available for business partner use, as well as adding summer camps and weekend workshops at center.

In the third phase, stretching over 2018-19, available time for the community to use the facility would be added, along with opening other lab areas for community use.

Continuing to build on an innovation center curriculum, organizers would also keep training staff and working on the sustainability of the lab, while evaluating the needs of all involved.

This is all good news for Willauer. Many times students will come to him looking for assistance with their ideas or time on some of the machines.

“I find myself most of the time having to say, ‘No,’” said Willauer. “I feel like the guy who always says, ‘No.’”

Having everything in one place will allow him to give a different answer.

The goal of organizers is to raise $200,000 for the purchase of equipment and the renovation work needed to set up the center. Willauer said it’ll cost roughly $10,000 a year to keep it open, although there are ways to cut expenses.

Benz said the Stoughton district realized that companies are often willing to donate lots of scrap materials for such programs.

If the center proves to be sustainable, its supporters feel it will be a boon for not just for the school district, but for the entire local area.

“In the long run, it’ll be a great resource for the school and community,” said Benz. “And if we don’t jump on this train now, we might miss it.”

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