Fab lab boosts community creativity

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Every Thursday, creative concepts come to life in the Northwood Fab Lab. The school's shop space opens to the community from 4-8 p.m., and the possibilities are endless: etched glass, sculpted plastic, vinyl letters, wooden signs, metal designs, engraved rocks and more.

About a dozen people drop by the school's shop space weekly, ranging from first-graders to retired senior citizens.

"It's busy," said Fab Lab Director Ben Sorensen. "You meet a whole lot of people."

They come with different levels of confidence and experience. Each has a project in mind. Small or big, detailed or simple, the lab's roster of machines helps turn concept into reality.

"It's amazing here," said Peggy Ingles of Danbury, who said her most technical skill was sewing zippers.

With the help of Northwood School senior Matina Campetti, she designed and printed vinyl letters for projects. Her husband Chris used the computer numerical controlled (CNC) routing machine in the next room to cut wooden silhouettes of birds, butterflies and fish. It was their second visit, and the pair was hooked.

"I've got a grandson I want to bring," Ingles said.

Tim and Jackie Overom of Wascott brought in two pieces of wood to turn into signs bearing their retirement motto, "Living the simple life," and the saying they use for their grandchildren, "I love you to the moon and back."

The couple learned about the fab lab at a craft bazaar and decided to stop by.

"What a wonderful opportunity for the public," Jackie Overom said. "No one has machines like this in their own world, so to have a community place like this is fabulous."

The adults were impressed when they saw the class projects Northwood students have built in the lab. In addition to fun projects like a bridge, bi-colored animal skull and scale-model homes, the young engineers have tackled real-life applications like creating specialized clips and tools for the lab.

Eighth-grader Jason Salley said he used a 3D printer to make a birthday present for a friend and to create a cupholder for his grandfather's wheelchair.

Northwood School received a Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Lab) Grant from the state in 2016, said Sorenson, technology and engineering instructor. The $33,000 grant — the district matched a quarter of the cost — was used to add the CNC and a milling machine to the shop space. Students began using the machines in August 2016 and it was opened to the public two months later.

The grant program is designed to support hands-on science, technology, engineering, arts and math education, grow the state talent pipeline and serve as an economic development tool. To date, 34 school districts have received grants.

"I use all the same equipment," said Tim Rainaldo of Minong, who has owned Old Town Woodworks in Superior for 20 years. "The future, this is all where it is."

One component of the grant requires opening the entire lab up for community access. Visitors receive a tour and training, and students are on hand to help.

Campetti, who plans to major in music education, said she enjoys meeting people from different walks of life, and flexing her technical muscles, during the weekly fab lab sessions.

The public component of the program has been so popular that Sorensen doubled the number of sessions this school year, going from twice a month to weekly. Through the lab, he's connected with local experts, like Rainaldo, who can offer valuable insight and training to students.

Northwood, Solon Springs and Maple school districts have all applied for 2018 fab lab grants of up to $25,000. Grant awards are expected to be announced this spring.