Miranda Fellom and Sabrina Greener, both 17, were fidgeting with a robot designed to pick up materials in Chi-Hi’s fabrication laboratory, or fab lab as it’s usually called, Tuesday evening. The robot’s “hands” slid and pushed the water bottle Fellom was directing it to lift before applying just enough pressure to pick it up and zoom away.
Across the room from them, Chi-Hi junior Matthew Blake, 17, was showing community members all the materials, gadgets and machinery in the laboratory, including a vinyl cutter used for screen printing, a 3D printer, a computer numerical control (CNC) machine for carving materials and — his favorite — a laser engraving machine.
These demonstrations in the fab lab were just one facet of Chippewa Falls High School and Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation’s STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — night Tuesday evening. Other attractions for students and community members included booths from Chippewa Falls and Chippewa County businesses, EMS, fire, police and sheriff’s department and post-K-12 institutions, such as UW-Stout, UW-River Falls, Chippewa Valley Technical College and the U.S. military.
The fun in the fab lab Tuesday evening didn’t just stop with robots and lasers — Chi-hi physics teacher Nick Gagnon said the event also had psychology experiments, rockets shooting into the air, slime-making and art attractions for students and community members all evening.
It’s the fifth year the school has held an event in dedication of STEAM education, Gagnon said, and the first year since the district decided to skip one year between events.
For Gagnon, the night is an opportunity for his students to not only demonstrate the work they do every day at school but also a chance for them and the community to see the kinds of businesses and opportunities Chippewa Falls has — and how much they relate to the passions they spark in high school.
“We hope to expose the kids to everything that’s going on in Chippewa,” Gagnon said, adding he’s “amazed” that most students don’t realize the amount of STEAM options available in Chippewa Falls.
But, with an interest in STEAM education, Gagnon said students are already preparing themselves for a rapidly changing society and job market.
“I think that, clearly, if you have a STEAM background in today’s tech-savvy world, it’s critical,” Gagnon said. “Pretty much any career, you name it, you’ll have to have some technological knowledge … a lot of careers you might not think are STEAM related — show me a career that isn’t.”
As seniors, Fellom and Greener are still unsure as to what they want to exactly do after graduation, but each has an engineering career in mind. Fellom has an interest in software engineering, while Greener is more passionate about the mechanical side.
The robot they were showing off in the fab lab Tuesday evening was built from a kit, Fellom said, and those who walked by were impressed with it, Greener said. The robot was also donning a new sticker it had acquired on a trip down the hall during a demonstration of its abilities.
Besides their own robot, both girls said Tuesday’s STEAM event shows the options they have once they are handed that diploma this summer.
“It shows what you can do it (STEAM),” Fellom said.
As a junior, Blake is still considering his own career options, but said he is leaning toward working with manufacturing. Dubbed the student to talk to when inquiring about the fab lab, Blake built the CNC machine from a kit in a month for the fab lab.
His current favorite machine is the laser engraving, which has helped students create coasters with sports logos and intricate designs, and throughout the Christmas season, Blake said, students were able to create stemless wine glasses that said “home” and had the coordinates to Chippewa Falls.
It’s an experience Blake said he’s appreciative he’s able to try out at just 17.
“We can explore manufacturing and fabrication right here in high school,” Blake said.
The school and CCEDC are waiting to hear back on confirmation of statewide fab lab grant winners to purchase new equipment and the results of a Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District referendum vote on April 3, which could dictate how the lab and any new equipment could be laid out with possible updated space, Gagnon said.