(TNS) — Educators and community partners across Hamilton County are showing off some of the school systems' most significant new assets this week, as teachers from across the region gather for Chattanooga's first Digital Fabrication Institute, hosted in five of the district's Volkswagen eLabs.
Teachers already were at work in five of the eLabs scattered across the district Monday afternoon, trying to create a clock from scratch using equipment and technology the eLabs are outfitted with, including 3-D printers, CNC routers, laser cutters and more.
The institute, a partnership among the Public Education Foundation, Hamilton County Schools and Hamilton County Education Association, is a four-day-long professional development experience made possible by a multi-year, $150,000 grant funded by the NEA Foundation to support teacher development and STEM education.
"The Chattanooga Fabrication Institute has empowered our teachers to share their unique insights with early adopters across the country and has identified many of our teachers as innovative education experts," Michael Stone, director of innovative learning at the PEF, said in a statement.
Many of the teachers attending the institute have worked in or have a little bit of experience in eLabs, and some are preparing for the eight additional labs that will be launched this fall.
"[The labs] are a tremendous value," said Anthony Goad, STEM coach for the Opportunity Zone. "It's engagement, it's getting kids in the classroom, it's getting them in schools, it's preparing them for the future."
Yet, some educators, like Beverly Hedges from LaFayette High School in Walker County, Georgia, don't have this type of technology and resources at their disposal — but they came anyway.
"If I can learn how to do this," she said, "I plan on purchasing a 3-D printer for my classroom. I think it will add interested and excitement."
Hedges now has her physical science and biology students create models out of color-coordinated paper or craft supplies, but she believes access to better technology will enhance their engagement and give them skills for the future.
"If they can build it, if they can handle it and actually build something, they understand it a lot better," she said.
After a Monday morning introduction by Stephanie Espy, a chemical engineer and author of "STEM Gems: How 44 Women Shine in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and How You Can Too!", the participants were issued design challenges — Monday's was an individual challenge to build a clock. Later this week, teams will have to work together on even bigger challenges meant to both teach them how to use the labs and get familiar with what they offer, and also get them thinking on the lessons their students could complete.
"We felt it was an extraordinary opportunity to bring in people to learn about digital fabrication," said Dan Challener, president of PEF. "It is really exciting. A year ago we started thinking about this and you put your head down and do the work and suddenly you're here."
The effort to open a total of 16 eLabs was unveiled in 2017 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.
Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, said such an initiative is exactly what the organization hopes to see (and fund) in other communities. The NEA Foundation grant has helped fund PEF's STEM Fellows and Science Sparks programs, as well as the institute itself.
"We had a deep sense with PEF, with the union and with the district that the community has a whole had the best interest of students in mind," Sanford said.
Monday was her first visit to an eLab — she visited Dalewood Middle School's lab, as well as the lab at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences — and Sanford said it almost made her want to be a teacher again.
'"It's created by educators, for educators," she said. "It's a perfect space that gives teachers the room to grow and to decide what happens in their classrooms."
On Tuesday, educators will be treated to keynote speaker Aimee Kennedy, senior vice president for education, STEM learning and philanthropy for Battelle, and Wednesday they will be visited by Ross Ingram, technologist, author, co-founder and CEO of Maslo Inc.
Teachers were able to attend the four-day institute at no cost, and applications were received from educators across the nation.
©2018 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.