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Getting ahead of the skilled-trade demand game

Tech ed classes at Luxemburg-Casco High School aim to prepare students to thrive beyond high school, adapt to change

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February 24, 2023

LUXEMBURG – Back in the day, it was often known as “shop class.”

It was loud, full of sawdust and smelled industrial.

Not only did students earn credits toward graduation, but they could proudly display their handiwork with a shelf or tool carry.
These days, it’s known as tech ed, and the classes aim to reach far beyond graduation.

The centerpiece of many tech ed departments are the fab labs – or fabrication laboratories – which have been springing up in the past decade and a half in high schools, community colleges and technical colleges.

Last year, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) awarded a total of $508,000 in Fast Forward grants to help 21 public school districts set up new or augment their existing fabrication laboratories.?

Between 2016-22, WEDC awarded more than 100 of these grants of $25,000 or $50,000 to school districts.

A multitude of experiences
One such district – Luxemburg-Casco School District – recently used its Fast Forward grant money toward a robotic arm.

The purchase was among five new pieces of equipment the high school fab lab recently added to its technology family – with a goal of ramping up its tech ed courses.

Along with the robotic arm came two desktop CNC (computer numerical control) mini-milling machines, an embroidery machine and an injection molder – totaling about $38,000.

Will Simonar, Luxemburg-Casco High School tech ed teacher, said the five new pieces of equipment join a bevy of other equipment at Luxemburg-Casco, including 3D printers, two-dimensional CNC machining, CNC routers, laser engraving, graphic arts programs, drones, and a Roland printer/cutter that can print out on nearly any material, including vinyl. 

“The fab lab began six years ago with a vinyl cutter, but we’ve been adding to it,” he said.

Luxemburg-Casco High School has a variety of new pieces of equipment in its fabrication laboratory, including a robotic arm, two desktop CNC mini milling machines, an embroidery machine and an injection molder. Submitted Photo

Simonar said the laser engraver is the most popular item with his students because it has so many uses, from cutting plastic to engraving glass.

“We’re getting a lot of exposure to a lot of different areas, whether it be robotics, CNC milling or embroidery,” he said. “We’re trying to hit on as many areas as possible so students can decide what areas they want to get into.”

According to Mike Snowberry, director of student services, Luxemburg-Casco High School may have the largest collection of such equipment for schools its size in the area.

“They expose students to different industries and career clusters,” he said.

In addition, Snowberry said such technologies “offer the experience of learning how to design something, then seeing the practical solution by making it, particularly for students with an interest in creativity.”
Popularity contest
Snowberry said the school’s fab lab classes are routinely among the most popular.

This school year, he said 102 students in six sections signed up for Fab Lab I classes, which is up from 74 students in four sections last year.

Simonar said between Fab Lab I and Fab Lab II, he and two other teachers teach three classes each.

“Our class sizes are roughly around 20-24 students per class,” he said. “We’re pushing quite a few kids out of here.”

Ninth grader Donovan Schmelzer is one of those students and said his favorite piece of equipment is the CNC machine.

“I know how the CNC machine works, and I am able to run the machine without having to ask for help,” he said.

Schmelzer said CNC machines can perform a variety of functions, including milling, engraving, routing and lathing.

He said a major part of the appeal of the CNC for him is the fact he can design a project for the machine – something he enjoys doing.

“The goals we strive for are not only to teach hard workers but also (help transform) students into independent thinkers,” Simonar said. “We want to make them self-starters and problem solvers.” 

Schmelzer said he’s taking tech ed classes with an eye toward the future.

“If I become a machinist, the skills I got in this class will help me better run the machines I would work with,” he said. “If I get a job that’s more hands-on, I’ll be able to take the communicating skills I got in this class to help with that job.”
Hitting the right chord
Simonar said with course areas such as industrial arts or tech ed, the “textbook” is the 3D world.

“That’s one nice thing about tech ed – it has some flexibility and mobility for students to walk around a bit, and the students take advantage of that,” he said. “They’re getting their work done, but they have mobility and don’t have to sit and watch me lecture in front of a board all day.”

Simonar said he does a lot of demonstrations and uses video tutorials to aid in his teaching.

“The idea is to be learning hands-on,” he said. “We don’t do a lot of bookwork in the fab lab. A lot of it is done by demonstrations and with computer programs – they can do it with me while I explain it.”

Students can get real-life, hands-on experiences through the tech ed classes at Luxemburg-Casco High School. Submitted Photo

Simonar said they’re lucky to have been able to add the robotic arm to the district’s fab lab “toolbox.”

However, because there’s only one, he said it can be difficult to show every student at once how to use it.

“I will break (classes) off into different groups – some may be working, some may be watching the demo, but at the end of the day, I’ll get them through what they need to get through,” he said. 

Simonar said it’s all in the name of preparing students to thrive beyond high school and to adapt to the changes that may lie in store.

“The world is (likely) going toward a lot of automation and robotics soon with the worker shortage we are having right now,” he said. “Somebody has to fill those jobs eventually, so we want to get ahead of the game. Robotics is going to be a nice career to get into that will produce well-paying jobs.”

In addition to the WEDC Fast Forward grant, the district has received contributions from four area businesses – LaserForm, Kono Kogs, Olson Fabrication and Rol-Tec – to help support recent equipment purchases.

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