Volkswagen eLabs in Hamilton County Schools Recognized as Global Leader by the International Fab Foundation
Posted on 09/19/2019
Dalewood Middle student Ari Shropshire shares her work with State Senator Bo WatsonHamilton County Schools, in partnership with Volkswagen Group of America Chattanooga Operations, LLC, the State of Tennessee, and the Public Education Foundation celebrated the Fab Foundation recognizing Hamilton County Schools as an international leader in digital fabrication education at a news conference today at Dalewood Middle School. The Fab Foundation is a Boston-based non-profit organization that emerged from MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms Fab Lab Program where students learn how to make virtually anything. Hamilton County Schools now represents the world’s largest concentration of educational Fab Labs in any community, with 17 labs joining the Foundation’s Fab Lab Network. The labs include one at STEM School Chattanooga and the 16 Volkswagen eLabs in Hamilton County Schools opened since 2017.

Volkswagen eLabs, the result of a $1 million donation by Volkswagen Chattanooga and the State of Tennessee, provide approximately 11,000 Hamilton County students access to the future of product development, manufacturing, and problem-solving. The students are engaged daily with expert teachers in these high-tech labs working on real-world problems. Teachers in the labs in Hamilton County Schools work in partnership with the Public Education Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization that provides training, research, and resources to teachers, principals, and schools.

STEM School Chattanooga pioneered the Fab Lab work in Hamilton County Schools when they opened the first lab in the state of Tennessee in 2014. By the summer of 2017, their lab was identified by the Fab Foundation as one of two national models for how to effectively integrate digital fabrication into K-12 schools through the Foundation’s SCOPES-DF project. Building on this success, the lab at the STEM school became the model for the development of Volkswagen eLabs in 16 Hamilton County Schools over the next two years. While the labs operate under a model that uniquely fits each school, the common goal is to develop future-ready students prepared to thrive as an adaptive, independent problem solvers in any industry.

"VW eLabs are helping to ensure graduates of Hamilton County Schools are future-ready and prepared for success after high school," said Dr. Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. "These labs provide opportunities for students to tackle problems individuals may encounter in our world today and opens doors to possibilities for the future."

To accelerate innovation and provide greater opportunities, Hamilton County Schools recently launched the Office of Innovation and Choice. “We are committed to providing rich learning experiences for all students,” said Jill Levine, chief of Innovation and Choice for the district. “Investments in Fab Labs will pay-off in improved digital literacy skills, greater student engagement, increased personalization of learning, and student ownership of learning. We hope one day be able to offer a fab lab in every school in our district.”

The Fab Foundation’s leadership team has worked with Hamilton County Schools since 2017 through the Public Education Foundation. “Hamilton County Schools’ network of fab labs is pioneering 21st-century education in new ways such that Chattanooga's youth are poised to be technology innovators and leaders in the 4th Industrial Revolution,” said Sherry Lassiter, president and CEO of Fab Foundation. “The partner organizations are excited about the pioneering leadership in education happening in Hamilton County Schools with digital fabrication and STEM, as the community believes it is a critical pathway to productive participation in the future of work. The partnership between Hamilton County Schools; Volkswagen, Tennessee; and the Public Education Foundation serves as an exemplary model for how to educate youth for today and tomorrow, and it is exactly the partnership model that we hope to expand around the world.”

“The applied learning that the students experience in the eLabs is a key tactic in Tennessee’s education strategy,” said State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. The labs in Hamilton County Schools have garnered international attention with more than 5,000 visitors from 21 states and four countries in the last three years. While the equipment is necessary to establishing the labs, their true value lies in how they are used to prepare students to thrive in the modern workforce by equipping them with skills to quickly learn new tools and apply that knowledge to solve complex problems. “By coupling access to emergent technologies with hands-on learning opportunities that bring real-world challenges into the classroom, students using Fab Labs are engaged in exciting new ways,” said Burkhard Ulrich, senior vice president of human resources for Volkswagen Chattanooga. “We’ve been so inspired by the student-led solutions coming out of the Volkswagen eLabs. This learning environment prepares students with important critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and that sets them up for success no matter the career path they choose.”

"This work is truly transformational for our community," said Dr. Dan Challener, President of Public Education Foundation. "The teachers leading this work are redefining what is possible in the classroom, and their students are engaging in revolutionary learning experiences that are reshaping how they think about their future.” Early observations in the labs suggest the hands-on experiences students are getting are truly making an impact. “From middle school girls creating a mechanized tree house model to high school students creating slippers with embedded ‘headlights’ that activate when you step on them, digital fabrication is actively changing how students prepare for the workforce needs of tomorrow,” said Michael Stone, Director of Innovative Learning at the Public Education Foundation.

Photo: Future entrepreneur Ari Shropshire, a student at Dalewood Middle shares her work in the VW eLab at Dalewood with State Senator Bo Watson.