eLabs are digital fabrication studios in Hamilton County Schools that provide public school students unparalleled access to rapid prototyping technologies (like CNC routers, 3D printers, laser cutters, microelectronics, vinyl cutters, and traditional woodworking tools, empowering students to thrive as adaptive problem solvers ready for success in a the dynamic, global marketplace. The labs represent the largest concentration of school-embedded Fab Labs in the world. The first 16 labs were opened in partnership with Volkswagen Group of America and dubbed "VW eLabs."
In January, 2017, Volkswagen Group of America, Chattanooga Operations (Volkswagen Chattanooga) and the State of Tennessee announced the establishment of a $1 million program that allowed Hamilton County TN middle and high schools to apply for funds to establish a digital fabrication lab for their students. This seed investment grew by over 300% over the next five years, leading to the development of 37 labs and counting in the region. By August, 2022, the eLab network in Hamilton County Schools will provide more than 22,000 students access to revolutionary learning opportunities in these state of the art labs.
The labs allow students to gain access to emergent technologies, including automated manufacturing equipment, 3D printers, robotics, microcomputers, renewable energy kits, and digital design tools. In addition to access to technology, the schools are establishing project based learning units and design challenges strategically designed to help students use digital fabrication tools in an authentic context.
In order to capitalize on the investment from Volkswagen Chattanooga and the State of Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools partnered with the Public Education Foundation to administer the grant, provided purchasing and equipment consultation, retrofit the facilities, and to provide more than 120 hours of professional development per year for teachers working to support the implementation of education programs through Volkswagen eLabs. Each awarded school identified a full-time lead teacher, dubbed the "Volkswagen eLab Specialist," along with three to four classroom teachers to comprise the Volkswagen Innovation Team. Together, those teachers are piloting a variety of implementation strategies intended to identify best practices for bringing digital fabrication to K-12 schools.
Today the labs are supported by a team of teachers and school leaders, and the model has grown and been replicated in 12 schools across central Indiana (supported by Michael Stone and the Regional Opportunities Initiative in Bloomington), and 6 middle schools in Milwaukee Public Schools (supported by Michael in partnership with the G.E. Foundation.
PEF has recently partnered with HCS to begin development of a web-based application (and mobile companion app), FabFolio. The app is expected to release from Beta and be publicly available by January 2023.
FabFolio is a web-based app that empowers students to curate a personalized digital portfolio as they document and develop new skills. The app provides a powerful feedback tool for students and teachers to use collaboratively as students work to acquire digital badges in technical areas like 3D printing and physical compu ting while also documenting their development of key essential skills like creativity and communication.
As students engage in projects in the classroom, makerspaces, or FabLabs, FabFolio provides an easy-to-use interface for students to document their work. With each project submitted, FabFolio provides students access to tools that allow them to manage their digital portfolio which can be shared via a public link to potential employers, other teachers, or other students.
FabFolio provides simple training videos, technical tutorials, and project starters designed to provide teachers a consistent starting point for school-based FabLabs.