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Ulrich Heimann, executive vice president of finance and information technology processes at Volkswagen Chattanooga, celebrates the opening of the county's first batch of eLabs, offering 21st century learning at several area schools.
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Students at Sale Creek Middle/High check out the school's new eLab, featuring cutting-edge technology courtesy of Volkswagen Chattanooga. Pictured are Tyler Layman, Braden Penny, James Gravitte and Braley Moorehead.

Earlier this year, Hunter Middle and East Hamilton Middle/High opened two of the first fully operational Volkswagen eLabs in the county.

Planned for 16 district schools, the labs feature technology for students to tinker with for school projects (and for fun) as they gain experience with laser and vinyl cutters, CNC routers for cutting wood and other hard materials, 3-D printers, robotics equipment, and microcomputers with spreadsheet and word processing software.

Functioning as a school-wide resource much like a library, classes or individual students can come to the lab throughout the school day to work on projects. Teachers across disciplines can also reserve the lab for hands-on classroom projects and engineering-based learning.

"STEM fields are one of the fastest-growing in our state and our country, and the need for integrated STEM education in Tennessee has never been more critical," Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement regarding the labs' opening. "These eLabs will give our students the opportunity to lead the nation in exceptional, hands-on STEM education, uniquely preparing them for college and the workforce."

The eLabs are the result of a $1 million donation by Volkswagen Chattanooga and the state of Tennessee. Schools were selected by representatives from VW Chattanooga, the Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Hamilton County Department of Education, and Public Education Foundation.

Next up

Hamilton County middle and high schools will be able to apply for funds in 2018 to be chosen for the remaining eight Volkswagen eLabs. Proposals submitted for funding will be evaluated by a Volkswagen panel based on standards established by the National Science Foundation that will include visits to the schools by representatives from the panel committee.

The project will eventually reach approximately 8,000 Hamilton County students. Each lab is staffed by a Volkswagen eLabs Innovation Team to ensure utilization to the maximum capacity. The teams are made up of highly trained teachers with specialized skills in facilitating learning through digital fabrication, according to a release.

"At Volkswagen Chattanooga we hold a deep, active and ongoing belief that education, whether at university, a middle school lab or an apprenticeship on the shop floor, is crucial to a successful career," Ulrich Heimann, executive vice president of finance and information technology processes, said in the release. "These Volkswagen eLabs will teach hands-on, engineering-based learning, and we are excited that eight labs around the county are opening this school term to engage and inspire the imagination of children throughout the community."

At East Hamilton, David Kellman works with students in the lab when he isn't teaching a computer programming pathway course. Students are encouraged to use the lab "to express themselves in a new way," Kellman said.

"It combines 21st century tools along with traditional tools to give them ways to come up with something to get their point across or solve a problem," he said. "The thing that kids like the most is the laser cutter and engraver because it doesn't take as much prep and planning to get to an end result. It lets them work with a lot of different artistic and engineering creativity."

In just this first semester of use, East Hamilton students are already illustrating the project's potential impact.

"We certainly already see kids coming up with things and ideas that we didn't even think of ourselves," Kellman said. "It seems like every week a student is thinking of something new."

The schools are each responsible for raising $5,000 annually in cash or contributed materials to ensure that the lab is continually refreshed with supplies and materials. Kellman said the reaction from parents and supporters of the school has been entirely supportive.

"What we aim for in the next few years is to see a large community of kids who it is second nature for to use these tools," he said.

By partnering to share best practices and the impact the labs are having at each school — additionally, Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences, Dalewood Middle School, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, Red Bank High School, Sale Creek Middle/High School and The Howard School — educators are taking the investment that much further.

"We all know STEM is one of the most important learning tracks for 21st century students as there will be 42,000 STEM jobs in the state of Tennessee alone within the next few years," Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson said in a statement. "Our amazing partnership with Volkswagen means our students will get the hands-on learning they need to truly be career- and postsecondary-ready."

Email Heather Newlin at hnewlin@timesfreepress.com.

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