Fourth annual Chattanooga Fabrication Institute draws educators from 17 states

The Chattanooga Fabrication Institute, a three-day seminar at which educators from across the nation gain hands-on digital fabrication experience, kicked off Monday at the Chattanooga Whiskey Event Hall.

During the conference, attendees visit Hamilton County Schools' various Fab Labs to learn how to use emergent technologies, like 3D and laser printing, and bring those lessons and skills back to their classrooms.

This year marks the seminar's fourth anniversary and its first sold-out event with 150 attendees from 17 states.

"We have a Fab Lab at our school, and there's so many really cool tools. I'm excited to be able to implement it in my curriculum," Emily Medsker, high school art and visual communications teacher from Ellettsville, Indiana, said in an interview.

"Art coincides, I believe, with every subject. But we'll be able to take, for example, I teach visual communications, so, we can create products digitally and actually create something functionally with the help of a 3D printer," she said.

In 2017, The Public Education Foundation in partnership with Hamilton County Schools and Volkswagen Group of America launched an initiative to integrate digital fabrication labs in schools.

"It was very important to get a high-skilled workforce. And we are technology companies. We have high-tech products, the auto industry, and we need students who are able to do critical thinking, to do really innovative and problem-solving thinking," Burkhard Ulrich, vice president of human resources for Volkswagen Chattanooga, said in an interview.

Today, the school district has 35 Fab Labs, a record for the most Fab Labs in any community in the world, Michael Stone, vice president of Innovative Learning at the Public Education Foundation, said in an interview.

"We know math and literacy and academics in school are critically important to every student. But we also know (in the workforce) essential skills like critical thinking, productive collaboration, creative problem solving; these are critically important skills as well, they just aren't as easy to assess. The labs, locally, provide us a fascinating mechanism to put students in a situation where, while they're mastering those content pieces that we have to teach, (they) get to develop these essential skills as well," Stone said.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson, Public Education Foundation President Dan Challener, Stone and Ulrich gave opening remarks.

"I just want to remind everybody, what it really means is opportunities for students. Here in Hamilton County, for those of you who don't live here, it means that every day thousands of students have an opportunity to learn, not just with cutting-edge tech, but with extraordinary teachers, who help them learn how to solve problems," Challener said to the crowd.

Attendees were then asked to open their conference goodie bags and remove the can of Play-Doh inside.

"Here's your task. We believe deeply that in the product development cycle when we're building solutions, rapid prototyping is critical to the work. So, you get 2.5 minutes to build a visual display answering this question: What are you looking to learn over the next three days?" Stone said.

Sherry Heinz, a visual arts teacher at the Howard School, built a small arch.

"I was trying to make something that had a lot of pieces that worked together. I want my classes, my students, to work together to make artwork, to bring it all together and to have meaning for all of us with our own concepts," Heinz said.

Over the next three days, attendees will also hear from Hamilton County students and take workshops led by national leaders in science, technology, engineering and math education, including an interactive keynote address by author and arts educator Kevin Honeycutt.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.