At eight schools in Hamilton County, Tennessee, students can tackle a selected real-world problem, design a solution and fabricate that solution, all in their onsite Volkswagen eLab. The eight eLabs, which provide access to rapid prototyping technology, came about through a public-private partnership in the Chattanooga area. And, it was just announced that eight more schools in the county will be getting eLabs. For details on the burgeoning project, we contacted Michael Stone, director of innovative learning at the Public Education Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Chattanooga that aims to improve student achievement in public schools, and a member of the partnership:

Q: How did the Volkswagen eLab project come about?

A: Volkswagen eLabs are the result of a partnership among the Volkswagen Group of America, Chattanooga Operations (Volkswagen Chattanooga); the state of Tennessee; the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE); and the Hamilton County Public Education Foundation (PEF).

Volkswagen eLabs serve as an exemplar of how public-private partnerships can make a tremendous impact on a community. Each organization has a particular role in this initiative, but the real gem is that every stakeholder has made positively impacting student success the primary focus of the work.

Q: What were the initials goals?

A: Like any innovative initiative of this magnitude, the goals are expected to evolve over time.

The $1 million donation from Volkswagen and the state of Tennessee was accompanied by a minimum expectation that PEF would provide guidance and ongoing support and serve as the fiscal agent to open digital fabrication laboratories in 16 HCDE middle schools and high schools over a two-year period.

In addition to leaning on PEF’s expertise to support the development of the Volkswagen eLabs, HCDE provided capital improvements and staff support to ensure that the new labs had access to the resources necessary for success. Due to the innovative nature of the initiative, initial goals were focused on simply establishing the labs as functional digital fabrication labs that were used daily by students to engage in revolutionary learning experiences.

As Volkswagen eLabs continue to develop, they are emerging as each school’s epicenter for real-world experiences. Students are learning to use formal strategies such as the engineering design cycle and design thinking to engage in project-based learning units — many of which are developed in close partnership with local businesses.

Additionally, each lab fosters a student-run entrepreneurial venture, dubbed Ed Corps, that is developed in partnership with Real World Scholars.

Q: How many labs are up and running, and how many students do they serve? How were the participating schools chosen to have a lab?

A: To date, eight Volkswagen eLabs have been established. They are located in a wide range of schools across the HCDE footprint.

The schools were selected through a proposal process based loosely on the National Science Foundation’s review panel protocol. A formal request for proposals (RFP) went out to all eligible schools in the district (all middle schools and high schools, including magnet and charter schools). Interested schools submitted a roughly four-page written proposal, responding to specific questions in the RFP.

A selection committee of expert stakeholders from multiple organizations evaluated the proposals and selected finalists. The selection committee then conducted site visits at each of the finalist locations to identify schools that best demonstrated the capacity to innovate beyond traditional instruction and curriculum.

The first eight Volkswagen labs were announced in late March 2017, and they all opened, fully operational, that August.

The selection process was predominantly merit-based, but providing equitable access to Volkswagen eLabs for students of every demographic background was an expressed priority for the selection committee. However, the first eight schools to receive a Volkswagen eLab nearly perfectly represented the socio-economic, ethnic and racial diversity of the entire school system. They are located in schools serving students in urban, suburban and rural settings.

As a result, each Volkswagen eLab has taken on a slightly different look and feel so each can most effectively impact the students who use the labs every day. As of December 2017, more than 1,700 students had recorded meaningful experiences in the first eight Volkswagen eLabs, and more than 4,500 students have access to those labs.

Q: How are the labs staffed?

A: Volkswagen eLabs are staffed with a VW eLab Specialist — a fully-credentialed teacher identified by each school’s administrator during the proposal process who is reassigned to ensure successful integration of the lab into the school and works to establish and maintain a safe and functional lab.

In addition to the VW eLab Specialist, each school selected three to four full-time content-area teachers who serve on the VW Innovation Team. These VW iTeam members attend all of the pedagogical and instructional professional learning with the VW eLab Specialist and commit to developing content-specific, project-based learning units that empower students to take advantage of the unique opportunities found in the Volkswagen eLabs.

Q: What equipment and materials are available in the labs?

A: Each lab is established with equipment based on recommendations from the Boston-based Fab Foundation for equipping a “Fab Lab.” While each school is granted the flexibility to develop its lab as a best fit for its mission and vision, certain components were standardized.

All labs are equipped with multiple 3D printers, laser engravers/cutters, electronic stations including soldering equipment and a variety of micro-controllers, vinyl cutters and a variety of more traditional fabrication tools.

Additionally, high school labs are outfitted with large-format computer numerically controlled (CNC) routers and the necessary machinery to support their use.

Q: What kinds of student projects are undertaken in the labs?

A: Student projects in the labs run the gamut. Most schools decided to implement a three- to five-year strategic plan to ramp up the scope of the work in their labs. However, while the labs are still in their infancy, we have already documented a wide range of successful student projects.

At an urban middle school, students developed functional prototypes for a mechanism that enables drones to deliver packages without the prohibitive need of landing on a pre-defined landing pad. Students in a rural middle-high school (grades 6-12 campus) developed sustainable solutions to provide clean water as a submission to a national eco-challenge.

A student team from an urban high school worked with a local clean-energy provider to create and race a green-powered go-cart in a regional race. Another school has a team of students working to develop robotic marionettes that can be remotely controlled over Chattanooga’s ultra-high-speed internet.

Finally, a middle school lab has launched a student-run business, Lightning Orthotics, in which students in the Volkswagen eLab design, develop, test, refine, manufacture and sell 3D-printed adaptive devices for people with special needs.

Q: Will there be more lab sites chosen and how? Do schools with labs supply any ongoing funding?

A: The additional eight schools (to round out the 16 total) were just announced on January 30. They were chosen following the same criteria explained above.

Selected schools committed to providing $5,000 in ongoing funding or in-kind donations to ensure the labs’ sustainability. However, this commitment was explicitly not included as criteria for the selection process.

Q: What has been the feedback from students, teachers and parents?

A: To some degree, it is difficult to answer this question without being self-serving. However, each lab is very active on Twitter, and it is clear that the first eight Volkswagen eLabs have been well-received by the entire school community at each location.

The labs have brought excitement to students, teachers and parents alike. However, more than generating excitement, the labs have begun to show students (and their parents and teachers) how capable they truly are.

At least five of the eight existing labs have received significant, unsolicited financial contributions from parents and community members, with several specifically noting that “this is what school should be about.” One parent recently commented, “I never knew (my child) was capable of this caliber of work. She is doing real work. Her academics prepared her, but this lab has given her the opportunity to demonstrate her abilities in ways I never knew were possible.”

At one school, a teacher went out of her way to thank the VW eLab Specialist, as she noted, “I walked by (student’s name) in the hall today. I overheard him tell his buddy, ‘Dude, you have to work harder in math, man. I am getting my work done early so I can spend extra time in the VW eLab!” She explained that because the student engaged in a particular project in the lab, his engagement in his “other” classes was notably better.

Q: What advice would you give school administrators who might want to start a similar program in their districts with corporate sponsorship?

A: Work of this magnitude is complex and requires a lot of little things to be done correctly. However, two critical factors enabled this initiative to successfully launch at such a ridiculous pace.

First, each of the members of the multi-organization partnership truly trusted one another. Volkswagen and the state of Tennessee did their due diligence to establish accountability through appropriate contractual obligations to ensure the investment was used responsibly, but they also empowered PEF and HCDE to leverage the expertise they brought to the table to ensure the work would be successful. It was the perfect balance of each member of the partnership doing its role well without intrusively prohibiting the other members from doing theirs.

Second, PEF’s staff was uniquely situated to leverage internal expertise and a strong relationship with STEM School Chattanooga (the first school in Tennessee to establish a certified Fab Lab). This relationship created a framework to establish VW eLabs across diverse school settings. Each lab perfectly fit into each environment while upholding necessary standards so that the labs could reach their maximum potential.

This process took approximately six years to develop with the STEM school. The Volkswagen eLabs are on pace to reach the same level of effectiveness in 18 months.

Any school/district could do this work with the right partnerships, sponsorships and leadership in place, but to accelerate the learning curve from six years to 18 months, expertise in developing education-centered digital fabrication labs is critical.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about this project?

On June 18-21, the Public Education Foundation will host the inaugural Chattanooga Fabrication Institute in partnership with the NEA Foundation.

The institute, designed alongside the Pittsburgh Fab Institute created by the Elizabeth Forward School District (Elizabeth, Pa.), will empower approximately 200 K-12 teachers to engage in hands-on experiences with digital-fabrication equipment in five of the original eight Volkswagen eLabs.

This event promises to be a unique professional-development experience offered to teachers. Thanks to a generous grant from the NEA Foundation, the registration is free.

To learn more and to register, visit http://www.vwelab.org/chattfab.

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