Gov. Scott Walker proclaimed May 1 Fab Lab Day, but University of Wisconsin-Superior Chancellor Renee Wachter crafted her own title.
"They should call it unleashing imagination day, because I think that's what these kinds of things do," she said at Solon Springs School.
A fabrication laboratory, or fab lab, is a high-technology workshop equipped with computer-controlled manufacturing components such as 3D printers, laser engravers, computer numerical control routers and plasma cutters.
Jason Scott with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation said the labs have become an educational, workforce development and economic tool all in one. Over the last three years, WEDC has invested $1.6 million into fab labs in 43 districts statewide.
Solon Springs was one of 22 school districts to receive a fab lab grant from WEDC May 1. The $25,000 grant will be matched by the district.
Although the machines involved are cool, the programming process is key.
"The software that you use here is very similar to the stuff they'll be using in industry," said technology education teacher John Fendt. "It's just basically giving them the understanding of how it works so they can walk off and pick up on it."
It can translate to a job site or a classroom, he said.
"We need students to be excited about the trades because there just aren't enough employees out there now," said Kim Pearson, director of college advancement at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Superior. "It's more than a shortage; it's a crisis if we can't get people."
Fendt said his students already take projects and reinvent them.
"I have this idea where I'm going and it's nice because we keep taking different twists on everything," he said. "Kids see one thing, they say 'We can do this' and take a different route with it."
Wood coasters became Christmas ornaments; a wooden card cases were redesigned to carry graduation pictures.
"If that's happening now, can you imagine what's going to happen with that fab lab when they can ... 'If you can think it, you can build it' kind of environment?" Wachter said.
The school's fab lab will be universal.
"They would like everybody to be using it," said art teacher Becky Semborski, who will plan 3D printing projects for students in kindergarten through grade nine.
Everybody includes the public. One of the components of a fab lab grant is to open it up to the community.
"I pretty much already know five people who will be in here every time the lab's open," Fendt said. "It will pull in people."
Only about a third of districts applying for grants received one. Solon Springs' application stood out.
"What we recognized was really that you're ready," Scott said. "This is something you thought about, prepared for. You developed partnerships with your community and you developed a curriculum that could really benefit these students."
"We couldn't have done it without the community," said Shelley Blaylock, president of the Solon Springs School Board.
Eighty percent of voters turned out in 2016 to approve a recurring referendum that provides the district with $500,000 annually.
"Of the 80 percent who showed up, 75 percent said yes to about a 25 percent tax increase," said Superintendent Frank Helquist, calling it a "seismic event" for Solon Springs.
A series of community conversation meetings followed, leading to an outpouring of new initiatives.
"They came out and they supported us," Helquist said, and the district responded. "What can we do to say we're your school?"
In addition to pursuing the fab lab grant, volunteers organized a nonprofit foundation to raise money for projects that have been proposed by staff. The school fitness center was moved from the basement into a handicap-accessible room and opened to the community.
Five nominees will be inducted to the Solon Springs Wall of Honor on May 16. The district will launch a virtual charter school in the fall of 2018 and plans to open a public Montessori charter school "that will make a significant ripple in the educational environment," Helquist said.
Keeping the community involved, Blaylock said, is the goal.
"That just all supports the referendum and all the confidence that they put in us to say 'OK, now come in and see what we're doing,'" she said. "Come in and use what we've built with your help."
Equipment for the fab lab must be purchased by December, Helquist said. The district did not have a timeline for when the fab lab will open to students or the public.
To take a test drive, visit Northwood Fab Lab at Northwood School in Minong. It is open to the public 4-8 p.m. Thursdays. The district received a second $25,000 grant from WEDC May 1 to expand the lab.