'What you can do is limitless'
Ask Solon Springs High School senior Alex Hunter to name the best part of the district's new fabrication laboratory, or fab lab, and you'll get as least four different answers.
"You never know what's going to happen," he said. "That's the best part about this."
A minute later, he added that the trial and error component of mixing programming and machines was the best part
"You're never going to learn anything if you don't fail," Hunter said.
Technical education instructor John Fendt is excited to see where Hunter and junior Owen Dickenson will take the new technology.
"This day and age, nobody wants to make mistakes, everybody wants to be perfect," Fendt said. "They're not afraid to make mistakes and learn."
Wednesday morning, the two learned that the laser engraver does not work on metal, even if it's painted. A warped plastic disc also reminded them to lay a strip of painter's tape down on the tray before starting a project on a 3D printer.
"It's always something new every day," Hunter said. "That's the best part."
The ability to combine different processes into a finished product also ranked high on his list.
"The best part about this Fab Lab is you don't use just one thing; you can incorporate everything," Hunter said.
He pointed out a chess set he created. The board was an etched sheet of red glass. The pieces were built from programming and plastic in the 3D printer.
Possibilities keep expanding at the school as Fendt, art teacher Dave Zosel and English teacher Nikkolas Adams test out new materials and concepts.
"The art teacher goes one direction; I go completely another direction and then our English teacher kind of takes both and goes in his own direction," Fendt said. "It's a fast way to build up information."
The new Fab Lab equipment — 3D printers, a vinyl cutter and two laser engravers purchased with a $25,000 Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation grant and matching district money — are sparking ideas in Solon Springs.
Everyone is invited to join the creative process. The Solon Springs Fab Lab is open to the public from 4-8 p.m. every Thursday during the school week.
"Don't be afraid to come in. Don't be afraid to screw up," Fendt said. "Come in. Find out if you like it. If you don't like it, well, all you did was invest a little bit of time. If you do like it, you'll be back and you might tell somebody else."
The laser engravers can carve highly detailed, photo quality images on a wide range of materials, from glass and stone to cardboard and cloth. Members of the community can make a puzzle out of wood or turn a 50 cent glass jar into a work of art.
Templates are available online for 3D printing projects. Visitors can bring in their favorites and watch as they're built, layer by layer.
The school held two training sessions over the past week to introduce the Fab Lab to the community. About half of the 22 people who attended were teachers. The rest were community members like Hunter's dad.
"Usually, when people first start using the laser, they'll do something simple," the senior said. "From what I heard when my dad was there, he said everyone made their own names on something. They weren't really experimenting or playing with it. I think as the years roll on, or the days, I think the public will definitely get more freedom with it."
From the practical to the decorative, the Fab Lab can make it.
"People pay lots of money to get this stuff done," Dickenson said. "You can literally do it for free."
The equipment is ridiculously expensive, Adams said, but it's entry-level stuff.
"The skills from this transfer over to bigger equipment," he said.
And it introduces new career avenues to students.
"No one expects a Fab Lab at a small school," Hunter said. "When members of your own community are shocked at what you actually have in school, it's pretty cool."
Participants should bring their own materials. Prior training isn't necessary. Adams, the Fab Lab supervisor, can teach visitors on site. After that, they can choose their own path.
"The best part about this is it's not often you get to say your imagination is limitless, what you can do is limitless," Hunter said.
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