Can a go-kart run off solar power? Can a water filtration system be created that does not require electricity? Can a horse use a prosthetic leg?
Those aren't questions being asked by professional engineers and scientists. They are questions that have been asked — and answered — in eight Volkswagen eLabs in Hamilton County Schools.
On Tuesday, Volkswagen, in partnership with the Public Education Foundation, Hamilton County Schools and the state, announced eight additional schools that will receive their own Volkswagen eLabs.
"[The labs] have changed how students learn," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation. "They have access to truly extraordinary teachers, some of the most advanced tools and technology anywhere in the world in our schools. ... The students in these eight schools have spent the fall semester wrestling with fascinating, very real challenges."
Students at the eight schools — Brainerd High School, Brown Middle School, Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts, Hixson Middle School, Hixson High School, Ooltewah Middle School, Orchard Knob Middle School and Soddy-Daisy Middle School — will have the same opportunities in their eLabs starting next year.
Schools getting eLabs
These Hamilton County schools are receiving new eLabs:
- Brainerd High School
- Brown Middle School
- Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts
- Hixson High School
- Hixson Middle School
- Ooltewah Middle School
- Orchard Knob Middle School
- Soddy Daisy Middle School
Schools that have eLabs
These Hamilton County schools already have eLabs:
- Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences
- Dalewood Middle School
- East Hamilton Middle/High
- The Howard School
- Hunter Middle School
- Normal Park Museum Magnet
- Red Bank Middle/High School
- Sale Creek Middle/High
"These labs give our students room for more innovation, a bigger maker space and time for creativity," said Orchard Knob Middle School Principal Tiffany Earvin.
The effort to open a total of 16 eLabs was unveiled last year through a $1 million donation from the state and Volkswagen Chattanooga. Tennessee provided the $1 million as a part of the package of financial incentives it offered when wooing the German automaker to Chattanooga.
The labs are filled with digital fabrication tools, including automated manufacturing equipment, programmable microcomputers, renewable energy kits, 3-D printers, robotics and laser cutters.
They are staffed by Volkswagen eLabs Innovation Teams, made up of Hamilton County teachers who receive specialized training and an eLab specialist who staffs the lab full time.
"You cannot imagine what is going on in there — it's so great to see all the innovative things students are doing with the tools of the future. The students truly love to work in these eLabs," said Nicole Koesling, senior vice president of human resources at Volkswagen. "Volkswagen truly is and always has been devoted to education. Every one of these students are the workforce of the future. ... I think it is crucial to have things like the eLab to really learn how to use these tools."
Schools with existing labs have each utilized their labs in unique ways. The specialists decide how to work with their school teams and in what capacity the labs are used.
At Sale Creek Middle/High School, where students repurposed old computer parts to build robots and clocks, eighth-grade students spend two days a week as part of their science classes in the labs working on semester-long projects.
Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences has tried to make the labs available across grade levels and curriculum, said Upper School Principal Jim Boles.
Students from an Algebra 2 class used math equations to build a miniature water filtration system, but students from a social studies class also used the vinyl cutter to re-create propaganda and design their own in relation to what they were learning.
"It gives teachers a stronger project option of their unit, it gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning," said Kristin Burrus, the school's eLab specialist and a Tennessee Teacher of the Year finalist. " It's neat that they are learning these skills with these tools, but what is truly transformative is the problem-solving skills they are acquiring."
In this round of applications for eLabs, 16 middle and high schools in Hamilton County applied.
Each school is responsible for committing $5,000 annually in cash or contributed materials, which can come through fundraising and donations, to ensure that the labs are continually refreshed and materials replaced.
The eLabs effort came as the region began to face challenges in building a prepared workforce for the future.
One of newly appointed Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson's big focuses since he took the helm last summer has been to create ready graduates, or students prepared for the workforce and highly skilled jobs that are out there.
In 2015, a Chattanooga 2.0 report stated that around 15,000 existing jobs were not filled by Hamilton County residents because they did not meet the education requirements.
In the coming years, 83 percent of job postings in the county paying a livable wage of at least $35,000 a year are expected to require education past high school.
Those jobs are highly likely to go unfilled, as only 35 percent of Hamilton County's public high school graduates complete a training, certificate or degree program within six years after graduation, 2015 data shows.
Pushes for better workforce development opportunities have come from the city and county, the school system and business leaders. The eLabs are one example of this, and last fall Johnson announced the unveiling of Future Ready Institutes, or specific industry-themed small learning academies that will be officially announced next month.
"We know there are skills like problem-solving, collaboration, determination that [students] are going to need regardless and these labs and experiences allows them to build them," said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.
Overall, working in the labs not only helps teachers align curriculum, standards and lessons, but they make learning tangible and fun for students.
"[Class] is better, it actually gives science a new meaning," said Drew Hillian, 14, an eighth-grader at Sale Creek Middle/High School. "You might have been able to sit down and brainstorm an idea before, but you couldn't actually build it. Now we get to see through the actual process."
This story was updated Jan. 30, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.