From a Maker Fair to a Fab Lab: How a Western Wisconsin school district is helping students develop in-demand skills

By Timm Boettcher, Realityworks President & CEO

In the first of this two-part series for ACTE’s Industry Connect blog, we profile a Western Wisconsin CTE program that’s doing some exciting things to engage CTE students.

Excitement was palpable as Altoona elementary, middle and high school students crowded into the middle school gym on April 25. The students were there to display a variety of handmade, interactive projects for the Western Wisconsin school district’s fifth annual Maker Fair. For the participants, the fair was an opportunity to show off projects that many had made using skills learned in the district’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses, like graphic design, woodworking and coding. For the organizers, the fair was an opportunity to celebrate how far the district’s CTE program has come since their first Maker Fair in 2014.

“When I started in 2014, I was the tech ed department,” said School District of Altoona Technology Education Teacher Jeffrey Ballentine. “Enrollment had been declining steadily since the mid-90’s, and we knew we had to make some changes. A makerspace was the first initiative we started, and with that initiative came a Maker Fair.”

In 2014, Ballentine was teaching one section of CTE courses to fourth-and fifth-graders and one section of CTE courses to ninth- through 12-graders each day, while middle school students received no CTE instruction. He typically saw no more than 10 students per class, and coursework focused on a more “modular” approach.

“Back then, we’d set up stations – a hydraulics lab station, a woodworking station, etc. Students would complete small tasks at each station, but not usually a complete project,” recalls Ballentine. “While they learned skills, this approach didn’t seem to carry as much interest with students – it didn’t give a real-world experience for them.”

To give Altoona students more real-world experiences, renew interest in CTE programs and address a growing skills gap in business and industry, the district started shifting toward a more project-based learning approach.

“When I speak with industry leaders in our area, they’re saying they want our kids to be able to do things like use a ruler, a tape measure, implement math into a program to operate a machine – things that require hands-on learning experiences,” said Dan Peggs, Altoona School District Superintendent, who was principal of Altoona Middle School when the shift towards more project-based learning was made. “Project-based learning is a way to let students flex a variety of tech ed ‘muscles,’ learn needed skills, work with tools and technology… in a way that suits them.”

Grants Enable Program Growth

In 2014, the district applied for and received a $20,000 state education grant to enhance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings for fourth- and fifth-graders, including a makerspace – and subsequent Maker Fair. This initiative gave Altoona students a chance to invent and create projects using resources like computers and audio/video editing tools.

“It’s a popular movement,” said Ballentine. “It’s about sharing how you made something and what your experiences were.”

The movement was so popular, in fact, that the next year – in conjunction with a $23 million referendum to remodel several district buildings – the School District of Altoona applied for, and received, a $25,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). The grant’s purpose: to create the Altoona Intermediate and Middle School Fabrication Laboratory, or Fab Lab, in what was previously an elementary school multipurpose space.

“We’ve received several smaller grants, and we get some donations from our community,” said Ballentine. “But without that WEDC grant, I think that our Fab Lab would have been turned back into a gym, and we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

A project-based learning environment designed to provide students with the skills needed to create products and develop skills needed to meet workforce demands, the Fab Lab initially began with a laser engraver, a 3D printer, a vinyl cutter and Lego robot. In addition to equipment, the grant also enabled the district to add a second CTE instructor, Bill Steinke, so courses could also be offered at the middle school in response to increasing demand.

“Our administration believes in hands-on learning, and as a technology and engineering teacher myself, I believe in providing educational experiences that engage kinesthetic learners,” said Ballentine. “Research shows that kinesthetic learning better engages learners and bridges the gaps between theoretical learning and practice.

More student engagement meant higher demand for CTE classes. According to Ballentine, enrollment in the School District of Altoona’s CTE program has increased almost 5 times since the Fab Lab opened its doors in October 2016. That year, 14 sections of CTE courses were offered; during the 2019-2020 school year, Ballentine, Bill Steinke and Sarah Steinke, who joined the department in 2018 to teach fourth- and fifth-graders, will together offer 20 CTE courses. Classes now range from metal fabrication, building construction and welding to graphic design, mechatronics and digital fabrication. Fab Lab equipment has been added to as well; recent additions include traditional tools like welders, as well as a vacuum former, a 3D mill and a plastic injection molding machine.

“Not only do we have more sections available, but we have more kids per class,” said Ballentine, explaining that the district is also seeing more female students enrolled in CTE courses than ever before. “The key is to get them in early, continue them in the coursework.”

Stay tuned next month, when this article continues with a review of the industry partnerships that are helping to ensure program relevancy and reactions from Altoona students, whose CTE experiences are growing

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