CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Chattanooga Fab Institute was funded by the National Education Association. It was funded in part by the NEA Foundation, which is a separate nonprofit organization.
Tyris Nelson, a recent graduate of Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, laughed as he helped Julia Phillips, a STEM teacher at Soddy Elementary, sand part of a wooden project in the school's Volkswagen eLab, a science workshop, Wednesday.
A few minutes later, Taylor Bowles and Laila Hinton, both rising juniors at the school, showed their former world geography teacher April Wyatt how to use the sander. She was working on a Disney-themed wooden lamp, complete with Mickey Mouse ears.
They jumped back and laughed as the machine started whirring. When asked how they were helping her, Wyatt said, "These are my students. They're the ones who know what they are doing."
More than two dozen teachers could be found hunched over different stations in the eLab this week. In fact, dozens of teachers from Hamilton County and 10 other states could actually be found working alongside local educators, teachers and Public Education Foundation staff at several of the district's 16 VW eLabs this week as part of the second annual Chattanooga FAB Institute.
The three-day digital fabrication conference, funded by the NEA Foundation and the Public Education Foundation, brought together teachers from across the country to figure out how to make thinking, learning and problem-solving fun for their students.
Digital fabrication uses various computer-controlled tools like 3D printers, laser engravers, vinyl cutters, wood routers and more to allow students and teachers to build their own creations from the initial design phase all the way through to completion.
The projects, or "design challenges" educators were tasked with, were not meant solely to teach them to use the tools. Instead, they were meant to give teachers ideas on how to create their own projects to foster learning in their own classrooms, whether they have access to such resources or not.
HAMILTON COUNTY SCHOOLS VOLKSWAGEN eLABS
- Brainerd High School
- Brown Middle School
- Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences
- Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts
- Dalewood Middle School
- East Hamilton Middle/High
- Hixson High School
- Hixson Middle School
- The Howard School
- Hunter Middle School
- Normal Park Museum Magnet
- Ooltewah Middle School
- Orchard Knob Middle School
- Red Bank Middle/High School
- Sale Creek Middle/High
- Soddy-Daisy Middle School
"We don't all have a $60,000 lab in our building. The tools are helpful, but it's really about the mindset and the way of thinking," said Michael Stone, director of innovative learning and STEM for [the Public Education Foundation]. "What happens when we put students in charge of their own experience? These things are happening, right here, without giving up high standards or rigor."
The first institute was launched last year to support teacher development and STEM education — which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math — through taking advantage of the district's eLabs. The first eight labs, made possible by funding from Volkswagen Chattanooga and the state of Tennessee, were launched in August 2017 and the second half opened in 2018.
Since the labs were launched, each school was provided with an eLab specialist, and has grappled with how best to utilize the labs.
At Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, a K-12 school, teachers book time in the lab and work through project ideas with lab specialist Kristin Burrus.
As a social studies and world geography teacher at CSAS, Wyatt said it can take some creativity and brainstorming to ensure an idea is worth the time spent in the lab.
"I bring in my kids about once a semester," she said. "You really have to think creatively about how you use the tools in the lab. The process is really what's important. The content gets in, but the process skills that the students are learning are more transferable."
Some of the projects Wyatt's students have completed in the lab include real billboards raising awareness about child soldiers and organizations that help them and 3D table centerpieces themed after individual countries that could be showcased at diplomatic dinners.
Hinton said she learns real life lessons when working in the lab.
"When you learn life lessons like that, you are going to mess up sometimes," she said. "I feel like a lot of hands-on lessons are more useful."
Her classmate, Bowles, said things she had learned in the lab had inspired her to think through problems outside of school. When her family's home alarm system broke, she rewired it with the help of phone support. Now, she's signed up for an independent study with Burrus in the lab next school year.
"It's not about the eLab, it's about what you learned while you're there that you can take with you," Burrus said. "I don't have to know the answer, I can point people in the right direction, with the right resources and the right tools."
This type of learning is what inspired many of the educators who traveled from places like Idaho and Indiana to attend the institute.
Many of them are from communities also exploring how to prepare students for the workforce and how to utilize technology or even business partnerships to do so.
The type of "design thinking process" that Chattanooga educators are encouraging through the work in the labs is what several school districts in Indiana are trying to recreate, said Tina Peterson, president and CEO of Regional Opportunity Initiatives, a nonprofit organization, based in Bloomington, Indiana.
Peterson traveled with a whole group of educators and community partners from Indiana to take part in the week's workshops.
"We help school districts rethink what outcomes that they want to see from this type of work," Peterson said. "There are similarities to what we want to accomplish in our region and what has been accomplished here."
"We'd be remiss not to mention that [the Public Education Foundation] is reaching out to other communities across the country and it's really going to make an impact."
Dan Challener, president of the foundation, said he was excited the institute has scaled up so much in just a year.
"It's beginning to be a regional, if not national, gathering place for people interested in this work," he said. "And it's really about students being more engaged because the work is really about them."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @memangrum.