Walk into the Oxford Academy Fab Lab and you might find a group of students building a “roller coaster” out of pipe wrap tubing so they can measure the speed of a fast-moving steel ball.
Another time you might see a windmill come together thanks to young engineers trying to measure how much electricity they can create (pro-tip: make sure you use all available blades so the windmill spins well).
Students in a High School anatomy class make 3-D models of organs in the human body then try making changes to those organs, just like biomedical engineers.
Recently students used a laser printer/etcher to make holiday signs and gifts on a variety of materials. When asked why her project spelled out “Italian grandmother,” the student said her grandma explained that is the reason she’s such a good cook.
Some days whole classes of Middle School art students visit the Fab Lab to learn how technology can support creativity and enable new projects, but instead of a canvas, these bears and butterflies appear on wood during an etching process that students set up.
All this (and more!) is possible thanks to the on-site digital fabrication laboratory, a repurposed space in the former bus garage behind the Middle School that now holds an array of professional tools used for digital design work and production. The clear, bright space includes laser cutters, 3D printers, a bank of dedicated computers, and more.
Appointed in July 2021, Fab Lab Manager Scott J. Donahue has been tasked with supporting teachers as they explore and learn about available technology, and with empowering students to become confident self-starters who choose and develop new things according to their interests. “This isn’t a paint-by-numbers workspace,” Donahue said. “When students and teachers decide what to work on, I help with tools and resources. After that, we watch what happens. It may take a few tries, it may take some problem-solving, and almost everyone learns that new ideas rarely unfold in a straight line. You mess up, then you try again. That’s not failure – it’s real life.”
It’s not just students who have benefited from the Fab Lab, explained Donahue. “I’ve been so impressed by teachers’ commitment to learning as well. I’ve been blown away by their ideas, and their enthusiasm for new things. One teacher commented that she acquired multiple university degrees without ever having learned to use this stuff. Now she can.”
Oxford’s Fab Lab is the result of partnership between Oxford Academy and Siemens, a global technology company, along with support provided by TIES (Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM), and a grant for a student-driven FUSE Studios educational program (Northwestern University). The availability of both state-of-the-art technology and self-contained project kits lets students think about what they’re interested in, then choose what they want to work on. Each project provides new opportunities for learning in science, technology, engineering, arts/design, and math, even as students acquire all kinds of 21st century skills.
FUSE lab projects also serve Primary School students in a STEM Lab located on another Oxford Academy campus. Oxford’s intent is to focus on the vertical alignment of curriculum and learning so lessons don’t happen in a vacuum. With planning and support, students ease into student-driven and effective use of Fab Lab resources.
Fab Lab planning for growth and optimum use comes, in part, from an Advisory Council comprising Oxford Academy educators and leadership, plus community leaders. The Fab Lab is also scaling up thanks to representatives from business, higher education, area public schools, and community organizations.
Regional challenges like work-force development, graduating students with a broader skill set, and community use can best be addressed through emerging partnerships. These stakeholders are focused on the development of a regional STEM ecosystem, beginning with a Rt. 12 corridor that will link schools, businesses, and communities from central Chenango County into the Southern Tier.
“We hope future graduating classes will have hands-on experiences in the Fab Lab before they leave for college, the workforce, or the military,” said Oxford Academy Superintendent John Hillis. “Thanks to our educators, we’re watching student discovery expand from curiosity to confidence. We’re also looking forward to more connections for students and community members. The Fab Lab is the nexus of a growing network that will provide more opportunities for everyone.”
To learn more about the Fab Lab’s development and the emerging STEM ecosystem, please see the spotlight article published by the New York State Community Schools Technical Assistance Centers. (hyperlink to
Turning ideas to reality: the Fab Lab at Oxford Academy
Wait till you see it. The new Fab Lab workspace behind the Middle School has come a long way since it was a bus garage. Construction approved by the 2018 capital project is now wrapping up and by the fall of 2021, this repurposed space will house a standardized array of tools for digital design that work with various materials so one can make almost anything. With laser cutting devices, 3D printers and much more, makers of all ages will acquire 21st century tech skills for becoming inventors, entrepreneurs, problem-solvers, and learners who bring ideas to life.
The Fab Lab is expected to begin as a workshop and platform for project-based, hands-on STEM learning, especially as it intersects with our established Agriculture education programs. Subsequent growth will lead to an emerging STEM ecosystem of partnerships between public schools, colleges and universities, businesses, and government, with Oxford at its center.
“I don’t think the Fab Lab will ever be a finished product,” Superintendent John Hillis said at an early planning meeting. “It will be a living entity that will keep changing and adapting to the environment around it. It will be a total district asset. Everyone will have access. I appreciate that everyone can weigh in and create a vision for what we’re trying to do here.”
In early meetings, a full complement of Oxford Academy educators plus representatives from Chobani, Raymond, Kerry Biosciences, SUNY Broome, Binghamton University, Commerce Chenango, DCMO BOCES, and Cornell Cooperative Extension and more joined the conversation about opportunities and planning. Working with consultant TIES (Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM) with support from Siemens, Inc., two virtual design sessions in the winter of 2021 focused on the following:
- Joint understanding of the Fab Lab’s capacity to enhance student instruction at Oxford Academy
- Understanding the role of design and related aspirations
- Developing a sustainable foundation for the Fab Lab
- Arriving at an alignment of vision
A Fab Lab Advisory Board comprising representatives from all sectors -- from regional businesses to universities to local public education to area organizations -- was then convened to meet bimonthly and assume responsibility for planning and keeping the Fab Lab on track.