Students Gain FAB-ulous Lab Experience

Christmas came early to students at John Marshall High School. In August, the FabLab, the first of its kind in West Virginia, was up and running. This lab is an extension of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms and allows students design, fabricate and create using a combination of low- and high-tech machines and software. This lab wouldn’t have been possible without an Innovation in Education grant awarded through the West Virginia Department of Education.

The inaugural group of students who chose to take the FabLab elective have now finished their first semester and have learned a plethora of real-world skills. They have used the lab’s 3D printers to create three-dimensional models from various plastics, vinyl cutters to make stickers and other heat-press applications, laser cutters to engrave and cut various materials, and a five-axis CNC router to create wooden signage and cabinetry.

The major and most popular project for the students this semester was to individually create a portable MP3 player. “They designed and prototyped the case decorations and layouts, which were cut out of acrylic; soldered the electronics and assembled the speaker themselves,” said T.J. Romick, the FabLab instructor.

Not only did they learn to use numerous machines in creating their MP3s, students were able to personalize their players and take them home. Freshman Caleb Cunningham, who plans to become a commercial or video game graphic designer, said the project came at just the right time.

“I liked it because I love music and I needed a new speaker, too, so the timing was convenient,” he commented.

Lane Whitlatch, who plans to become a mechanic specializing in collision repair said, “I think it’s cool that we got to make something that we can use on a daily basis.”

Students also worked on some group projects that not only met the needs of the community but also taught the students how to work as part of a design team.

“The students designed and built a set piece for Monarch Company’s production of ‘Dracula,’ and, most recently, worked with Moundsville Middle School faculty to design and build a mobile school store,” said Romick. The students also surprised the John Marshall faculty with Christmas ornaments that they designed and fabricated, so Christmas came early for us, too.

Next semester, students will design and create a modular locker system for the classroom, “advancing their skillset with the vinyl cutter by creating decals and clothing, and using Arduino technology to begin to experiment with coding and introductory robotics,” said Romick. Planned group projects include collaborating with John Marshall Career and Technical Education students to create a park on campus, working with Monarch Company for their spring musical, and joining with Project Lead The Way engineering students to design and build portable storage for the class’ extensive collection of VEX robotics pieces.

This class is open to any student, regardless of grade or college and career goals.

“A student who’s in his basement or garage tinkering should be in the class. A student who’s interested in digital design — for art, for engineering or for innovation — should be in the class. A student that’s taken apart an old television set and wondered what all the soldered pieces did, should be in the class. A student who is designing, modifying or making clothing should be in the class,” said Romick.

Senior Dalton Goddard plans to have a career in graphic design and said the course “allows me to create what I can come up with and helps me express my creativity.” He encourages students who are interested in turning their creative ideas into reality should take this class.

Dustin Hall, a senior and future physical therapist, recommends students who like to work with their hands should enroll in this elective. Junior Serena Whitlatch believes this course would benefit all students.

“I think it’s a good class to take no matter what career you’re going into,” she said.

My youngest son, Alec, is currently a student in the class and can’t sing its praises enough. I love to hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about his projects. And I’m hoping he places an Alec-original, FabLab present under my Christmas tree.

Jonna Kuskey is an English teacher at John Marshall High School. She was the 2014 Marshall County Teacher of the Year and a 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year finalist.