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​California University alumni use new tools to build STEM skills

If you can dream it, you can build it.

Two California University of Pennsylvania graduates are helping to spread that creative idea to primary and secondary school students in southwestern Pennsylvania. Just step inside their “fab labs.”

A fab lab is a digital fabrication laboratory, and Patrick Williams ’14, ’16 and Brandon Prentice ’13, ’15 are happy to show students around.

In these labs, students learn to design and manufacture products using tools such as 3D printers and scanners, laser cutters, vinyl cutters, and computer numerical control (CNC) milling machines.

Williams, whose degrees are in technology education and school counseling, worked as a long-term substitute in the Elizabeth Forward School District before accepting a permanent position this fall at Obama Academy 6-12, in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Prentice, whose degrees are both in technology education, works for Intermediate Unit 1, which serves schools in Greene, Fayette and Washington counties.

Elizabeth Forward and IU1 have permanent classroom labs, as well as mobile versions.

“A physics teacher may say, ‘I have a lesson prepared for a mousetrap car,’ so our mobile lab provides the design process for creating the different parts they need — such as laser-cutting the chassis or 3D-printing the most efficient wheel design,” Prentice explains.

“Sometimes I have to introduce students to what a fab lab is. Sometimes a teacher has a lesson in mind; sometimes I provide the lesson.

“Some of the prepared lessons involve multiple engineering principles to design, create and test projects such as illuminated LED signs, solar cars, MP3 speakers, mini-trebuchets and digital clock circuits.”

The goal is to develop out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving skills.

“I want students to be able to say, ‘This needs to be changed or improved in the world. What can we create in this space that will help these people?’” says Williams.

Elizabeth Forward has a K-12 digital fabrication curriculum, says assistant superintendent Dr. Todd Keruskin ’96, ’02, another Cal U graduate and an adjunct professor in California’s Department of Secondary Education and Administrative Leadership.

“The lab is integrated into the science curriculum, but projects can be done in other classes. Our message is, ‘You can design anything you want; you just have to be a creative thinker.’”

Williams brought the district’s mobile fab lab, which serves its four elementary schools and some community events, to Cal U this summer for GEAR UP Vulcan, a science camp for 40 high school sophomores from central Pennsylvania.

The camp was funded by a Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant from the U.S. Department of Education that was awarded to Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. It was the first year for Cal U to host the camp.

Students are welcome to take field trips to IU1’s permanent lab in Grindstone, Pa. Prentice also takes the mobile lab on the road to events such as the Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ competitions held at Cal U.

“Digital fabrication is very practical, and technology has made it accessible,” Prentice says.

“You don’t have to be an engineer to learn this curriculum.”