In January, 2017, Volkswagen Group of America, Chattanooga Operations (Volkswagen Chattanooga) and the State of Tennessee announced the establishment of a $1 million program that catalyzed a movement in Hamilton County TN to establish a digital fabrication lab network for K-12 students.
Named Volkswagen eLabs, the program allows students to access emergent technologies, including automated manufacturing equipment, 3D printers, robotics, microcomputers, renewable energy kits, and digital design tools. In addition to access to technology, the schools are establishing project based learning units and design challenges strategically designed to help students use digital fabrication tools in an authentic context. Each VW eLab meets the criteria set out by the Fab Foundation from the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms to thrive as a Fab Lab.
The first eight state-of-the-art digital fabrication laboratories were opened in August 2017, and an additional eight opened in 2018. In order to capitalize on the investment from Volkswagen Chattanooga and the State of Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools partnered with the Public Education Foundation to administer the grant, provided purchasing and equipment consultation, retrofit the facilities, and to provide more than 150 hours of professional development for teachers working to support the implementation of education programs through Volkswagen eLabs. Each awarded school identified a full-time lead teacher, dubbed the "Volkswagen eLab Specialist," along with three to four classroom teachers to comprise the Volkswagen Innovation Team. Together, those teachers are piloting a variety of implementation strategies intended to identify best practices for bringing digital fabrication to K-12 schools.
Today, with additional investments from Hamilton County Schools, Volkswagen, an $1m anonymous donation announced in 2021, and a $5.3m donation in 2022 more than 25,000 public school students have access to school-based Fab Labs in public schools across the Tennessee Valley. This growing network, now with labs in 43 K-12 schools, represents the largest FabLab network in the world!
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