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From Theory to Practice: BRF High School developing high-tech engineering lab

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BLACK RIVER FALLS -- Brett Geisler didn’t know how to use three-dimensional printers until Black River Falls High School acquired the technology.

Geisler, a junior, took a 3-D design class last semester, but his interest in the printers -- which make tangible objects from digital files -- took off as he developed the skills to use them as a hobby.

“I kind of thought they were cool, but I didn’t know how to operate them,” Geisler said of when the school first had them available.

“Overall, I learned what I was able to do with it, and I took it to a different level.”

The printing technology is one of several upgrades the school is in the process of making to its technology education department to develop an engineering lab that will increase academic opportunities and students’ interest in the engineering field.

The 3-D printers came on late last school year, but the technology education department remains in the midst of pursuing grant funding to complete a nearly $80,000 project that also involved the addition of a vinyl cutter last week.

The high school hopes to update its CNC router that’s used for woodworking and acquire a laser engraver to alleviate the need to use the middle school’s equipment.

“I think (it’s important) if we want to bring in the right mix of students for engineering -- to have people who may have interest in engineering -- to actually proceed with some education before going to college for it,” said Andy Richard, one of the high school’s technology education teachers.

“I think it will help elevate student expectations and what they’re capable of inside the tech ed department.”

The department already configured some of its technology education space to get the engineering project going, including the conversion of the former computer lab into the engineering area with new student-made work tables, space for the 3-D printers, the vinyl cutter and possible laser engraver.

The area that formerly had old drafting tables now is the computer lab and the switch is intended to allow access to the engineering lab area by other classes without interruption.

The reconfiguration will not only benefit the school’s wide range of technology education course but will also allow for cross-curricular use of current and newly added technology.

“I’m really excited about the enthusiasm that Mr. Richard is bringing to this project. He has students very excited to really dig into this area,” BRF Superintendent Shelly Severson said. “I think people have the perception of ‘engineers’ in that it’s a field that feels out of reach for many students -- that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The possibilities are wide open. I believe (by) providing positive initial experiences in these fields we encourage kids to imagine the possibilities that they may not have ever considered before.”

Geisler, who has a strong interest in robotics, has completed many 3-D printing projects, which involve designing parts on a computer and transferring the files to the machine, which constructs it into physical parts.

He’s created a helmet, comprised of many 3-D printing pieces, from one of his favorite video games and is in the midst of creating a bow. Another student was in the process of making pamphlet holders for the Black River Falls Police Department with the technology earlier this week. The printers also would allow students, like Geisler, to make parts for robotics they create for class and competitions.

Sophomore Nash Voge currently is taking a construction class and already has completed an introductory course on woods and engineering, and he’s excited about the progress of the new lab. He has plans to use the newly acquired vinyl cutter for projects that involve creating signs or graphics.

“It’s just interesting to me,” he said.

Vlad Klybanivsky, an exchange student from Ukraine, has utilized the middle school’s laser cutter on foam to create airplanes, and he’s also used the 3-D printers to make small parts to assemble the planes.

The senior said he’s excited about the technology available at a U.S. school that allows for real-world application of theoretical concepts.

“It’s really cool. It’s so different from my Ukraine school,” he said. “We have a lot of theory in our science classes … Here you can practice and do your own stuff.”

The technology education department expects to hear by the end of April whether it has received the $23,000 grant it pursued, but officials plan to find other funding sources to continue with and complete the project if the grant doesn’t come through, Richard said.

The opportunities will be important for students as they gauge their interest in the wide-ranging engineering field, Richard said.

“This would put us ahead of the curve currently -- there are a lot of schools that have some of these (technology) components,” he said. “There are a lot of students who go into engineering and they don’t pursue it all the way because they may not have been prepared or they found out it wasn’t for them.

“Others (with interest) may not have been pushed.”

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