Hamilton County Schools unveils state’s first elementary-integrated Fab Labs

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Gabby Timmons reaches across the table to work with a circuit board. Hardy Elementary School invited teachers, administrators, and community leaders to the ribbon cutting ceremony for the school's new HCS eLabs on September 12, 2022.

Hamilton County elementary schools are now the first elementary schools in Tennessee with onsite digital fabrication spaces or eLabs.

To commemorate, officials held a ribbon-cutting Monday at Hardy Elementary in Chattanooga, where they formally announced the expansion of 12 new eLabs, including the first nine in the state to be integrated into elementary schools. They join 24 other eLabs in the Hamilton County school district, comprising the largest network in the world.

"What this does is bring a hands-on learning experience and creates more opportunities for elementary students to connect to this kind of learning," Superintendent Justin Robertson said to a small gathering at the ceremony. "What is especially interesting about being at Hardy right now is that these students, starting in grade kindergarten, will be able to go on a trajectory through 12th grade where they will have access to an eLab at every stop on their educational journey. That's a big deal."

(READ MORE: Fourth annual Chattanooga Fabrication Institute draws educators from 17 states)

According to the website of the Fab Foundation, a Boston-based organization that helps grow eLab networks, the eLabs provide students with advanced technology to bring their ideas to life, while also giving them in-demand skills for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The labs are typically equipped with digitally controlled machines like laser cutters, 3D printers, vinyl cutters and electronics that will allow students to make, well, pretty much anything.

In addition to Hardy, new labs are at Battle Academy, Brown Academy, East Hamilton Middle, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, East Ridge Elementary, Lookout Valley Elementary, Red Bank Elementary, Red Bank Middle, Soddy Elementary, Thrasher Elementary and Tyner Middle.

The new labs are possible thanks to a $1 million anonymous donation made to the Public Education Foundation in 2021 to expand on the existing partnership the Volkswagen Group of America, the Public Education Foundation and the district formed in 2017. That year, Volkswagen donated an initial $1 million through the Public Education Foundation to open the first 16 eLabs.

The most recent round of schools was selected through a rigorous application process, Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, said at the ceremony. Each school submitted a written proposal outlining its vision for the eLab and describing how it would provide equitable access to all students.

"We cannot really predict what jobs will exist five to 10 years in the future," Burkhard Ulrich, senior vice president of human resources at Volkswagen, said at the ceremony. "We know that students today need a more diverse skillset in order to be successful. And one of the most important skills probably is to learn how to learn."

Challener said having eLabs in elementary school can help increase the number of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and math.

"There is growing research that says if you expose girls to STEM education, computer science early enough, you are likely to close the gender gap for things like IT and STEM education and the sciences," Challener said. "So, I think part of what's exciting is we're expanding the length of time that students can do this learning, but we're also giving girls an opportunity to get engaged with this work before it becomes a boys-only club."

(READ MORE: Student speakers talk about eLabs to kick off final day of Chattanooga Fabrication Institute)

Hardy Elementary's eLab, formerly a library, has several 3D printers, vinyl cutters, 3D pens and lots of Lego bricks.

"When you talk to employers across the city, everybody is looking for workers, and not just workers, but workers that know how to work alongside a team," Robertson said. "What happens in the eLab, and it looks oftentimes like play, but kids are learning those skills, are learning how to work together. They're learning how to think critically and, hopefully, it's going to open up their eyes to the opportunities in the workforce down the road."

Following the ceremony, fourth grader Harlem Taylor said she's happy other children will have opportunities to learn like she is.

"I'm excited that this might be going on for years," Taylor said. "And I'm excited that other people like me in my grade or higher will get to have an education by doing eLabs."

She hopes to pursue a career in STEM.

"I want to help people do stuff like this," she said, adding that maybe even one day, she'd be a STEM teacher.

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