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Intermediate Unit Mobile Fab Lab brings STEM technology to youngest students

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Fewer than half of the 13 public school districts in Bucks County provide much in the way of STEM technology to their elementary students.

The Bucks County Intermediate Unit’s Mobile Fab Lab, one of only 50 in the country, aims to change that.

Unveiled Sept. 23 at Seylar Elementary School in the Pennridge school district, the Fab Lab is designed to bring advanced digital fabrication and computer science learning experiences to the county’s youngest students with several pieces of hi-tech equipment, including a laser cutter, a ShopBot Desktop CNC router, 3-D printer, a vinyl cutter and programmable robots to stimulate creative projects. The lab will spend a week “residency” at each school it visits with activities presented by an IU staffer and classroom teachers to ensure they align with current lessons.

Speaking at a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony, IU Executive Director Mark Hoffman said the mobile Fab Lab will support innovative teaching and learning in schools throughout Bucks County. The goal is to ensure that schools are preparing young people for the jobs they’ll hold tomorrow, he said.

“Having a van than can move between schools allows the districts to bring cutting edge, modern equipment to students and their teachers,” said Hoffman.

The mobile lab is funded by a $417,656 PAsmart Advancing Grant, which aims to enhance science and technology education throughout the state.

Dr. Lindsey Sides, the IU’s supervisor of STEAM education, said the concept of a mobile Fab Lab had been under consideration for nearly two years. When the funding became available this spring, the IU already had the beginnings of a plan in place, which helped its chances for approval.

So far, 37 schools have reserved the lab through the end of the school year, she said. The lab will also visit homeless shelters on weekends and will be available for educational camps during the summer.

“We are reaching young students early, getting them excited about computer science,” she said. “We know it a huge need in our local workforce. By starting early, we’re hoping to get that engagement going.”

That’s because STEM careers are going to be in demand. Of the more than 300,000 STEM jobs in Bucks County during 2018, nearly 17,000 went vacant, said Side. Advanced manufacturing jobs are frequently cited as being the most difficult to fill, she said.

“In 2019, it is really difficult to imagine an industry that does not require its workers to be familiar in some way with computer science or digital fabrication,” said Sides. “We need to prepare students for the workforce that is happening right now and for the future.”

After the ribbon-cutting, Seylar fifth graders spent the week tackling a real-world problem: renewable and sustainable energy. Specifically, they designed, built and tested a variety of windmills to come up with the best solution.

Seylar Principal Miles Road said he was thrilled his school was chosen for the Fab Lab’s debut. While more equipment is planned, his students currently have access to only a 3-D printer, which gets frequent use.

The plan calls for fifth graders to visit the lab for at least 45 minutes each day, said Roe. Younger students will whet their appetite with a single 45-minute session during the week, he said.

“We are super excited to have the Fab Lab here,” he said. “Our students are extremely excited. They got a chance to preview the equipment and were anxious to get started.”


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