BELLEVILLE — The Belleville School District wants to get more students interested in technology and manufacturing by reaching them when they’re young.
So the $13,000 the district received from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation will buy equipment that will be used by middle-schoolers to prepare them for more sophisticated equipment in later grades.
Ed Neumann, technology education and engineering teacher in the district, said it is important to give middle schoolers the exposure so at least they know that world exists.
“These careers are out there, they are not boring, they are challenging and they’re well-paid,” said Neumann, coordinator for the school’s science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) program.
Belleville was among 28 school districts throughout the state awarded a total of more than $635,000 in grants from WEDC to establish or expand local fabrication laboratory, or fab lab, facilities. The fab lab is a high-technology workshop equipped with computer-controlled manufacturing components such as 3D printers, laser engravers, computer numerical control routers and plasma cutters. Through its Fab Labs Grant Program, WEDC is supporting the purchase of fab lab equipment for instructional and educational purposes by elementary, middle school, junior high and high school students.
The grant program requires each district match half of the funds, so the Belleville district had $19,500 to spend on its new equipment.
Neumann said the money Belleville received will purchase four laser engraver cutters directed primarily at middle school programs, although high schoolers use the same lab and also will benefit.
He said studies have shown that students, especially girls, need to be exposed to science, technology, engineering, art and math early in order to retain their interest.
“If you don’t get them with STEAM curriculum by fourth grade, we are going to lose them,” he said.
Freshman Bo Zantow, who was installing an electrical box on a mock-up wall along with freshman Allison Lietz at school last week, said he plans to follow family members’ footsteps and go into the trades, where the demand for employees is high. He said he is most interested in welding right now.
The district has “some of the best equipment that is really on the market right now,” he said.
Senior Tyler Beyer, who has been considering careers in robotics, electrical engineering and computer science, said he decided to take the computer integrated manufacturing class because he needed more credits and it sounded like fun. Since starting the class, his interest in robotics has increased.
Heather Schmitz, principal for grades seven through 12, said all eighth-graders in the district are required to take a semester-long Project Lead The Way course, which meets every other day. Project Lead the Way is an organization that develops curriculum in science, technology, art and math.
While Belleville has earned “distinguished” recognition for its individual schools in the past, last year was the first time it earned district-wide recognition for its Project Lead the Way program. Schmitz said the recognition takes into account the courses offered, the percentage of students enrolled and how it measures on assessments.
“It is definitely a philosophy and instructional practice,” she said about the district’s STEAM emphasis.
An addition was put on the district’s STEAM Center and the rest of the space was remodeled in 2017. This is the first time the district has received a WEDC grant. Schmitz — who likes to use the phrase ”small schools, big opportunities” — said the grant will help the district remain competitive.
“We want our students to have all the opportunities students in big schools have,” she said.
Senior Raina Nicholson took the Project Lead the Way class as an eighth-grader and plans to study architectural or mechanical engineering
“I just enjoy the concept of creating stuff and building,” Nicholson said. “Mr. Neumann really gives us all the tools we need to be successful.”
Every year students in the engineering design and development class create their own invention and can participate in a statewide competition through Project Lead the Way. Nicholson’s project was a battery-operated and rechargeable hand warmer called “Heated Stress Ball.” The idea was that it would not only keep hands warm but would allow people to move their fingers. The project took second place in the state, and Nicholson and her teammate each earned a $1,000 scholarship.
WEDC has invested more than $3.4 million over the past six years to provide 95 school districts across the state with equipment to help students learn high-demand skills, including technology, manufacturing and engineering.
“Fab labs not only benefit the students themselves with important technology and career skills, but they also benefit Wisconsin employers, who will be able to find workers with the right skills to allow their companies to grow and thrive,” Missy Hughes, WEDC secretary and chief executive officer, said in announcing the grants last week.
Other areas school districts receiving Fab Labs Grants include Montello, $25,000; Poynette, $9,222; Columbus, $25,000; Dodgeland, $25,000; and Wonewoc-Union Center, $25,000.
In addition to the grants, WEDC has developed a fab lab resource webpage for school districts. Content for the page — wedc.org/programs-and-resources/fabrication-laboratories-grant — was provided by the UW-Stout and Fox Valley Technical College.
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