HCS 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."

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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. As of August, 2021, the eLab network in Hamilton County Schools now provides more than 19,000 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) that provides students and teachers with a digital portfolio tool that seamless blends students development of STEM Essential Skills and technical fluency as they engage in project-based learning in the labs. The app is expected to release in Beta in January 2022 and is currently fully grant funded so it will be free to teachers and students to use for the foreseeable future.