Digital fabrication labs used to be the domain of elite East Coast universities.
But, thanks to Brendan Boyle, Mounds Park Academy (MPA) has opened its own lab, believed to be the first of its kind in the metro area run exclusively by students.
In November, Boyle, a senior from Woodbury, got up before a crowd of parents, teachers and alumni at the school's annual fundraiser to talk about the emerging field of three-dimensional printing.
"A lot of adults don't know what a 3-D printer was. They've heard of it, but they don't know what it is. What they were able to pick up on is his enthusiasm. And his passion," said Bill Hudson, the school's director of institutional advancement. "And the way that he was able to explain it — about how students from kindergarten all the way to seniors in high school could access and use the machine in the lab — it just kind of inspired people."
Boyle's message got through, as the school raised more than $36,000 in 10 minutes for the construction of the lab, which opened earlier this month, MPA officials said.
"With that budget, he is quickly moving forward by training teachers, assisting with classroom integration and researching and purchasing the necessary equipment, software and curricular materials," Natalie Seum, a spokeswoman for the school, said in an e-mail. "After presenting his vision to various audiences in the past few weeks, including the typically dreaded peer group in most high school settings, he has received nothing but rousing ovations."
Several times a day students at the private K-12 school in Maplewood wander into the school's new lab, tucked away next to the gym, to get a closer look at the technology that could someday allow astronauts to produce food on deep-space missions or let scientists construct human organs for transplantation.
For now, the lab's goals are much more modest, Boyle said, twirling a trinket another student had designed in his hand.
On a recent afternoon, he showed off the facility's $3,000 MakerBot 3-D printer, which stacks up layers of P.L.A., or polylactic acid, a corn-based polymer, to make 3-D shapes. Hudson called it "the 21st-century shop class."
He said the lab is looking at adding another printer, a vinyl cutter and a device called a 3-D mill with the money remaining from the fundraising drive.
An enthusiastic technophile, Boyle began tinkering with his family's computer at an early age, he says, and by seventh grade had started his own computer consulting company.
"My dad brought me in on the process, and he helped me set up the computer and we got the Internet the same day, so that was incredible," Boyle said. "And I guess through my childhood, I had unprecedented access to that computer, so I taught myself a lot of things."
As a freshman, he joined the robotics team at East Ridge High School in Woodbury because MPA didn't have a program. Boyle and his teammates qualified for the world championships in St. Louis, where they competed against hundreds of other top programs from around the globe. He said the experience convinced him to "bring the program back to Mounds Park," which last year started its own team, nicknamed the MPArors.
Boyle, who captained the MPA/St. Paul Academy football team and also played baseball, said he is considering several schools with historically strong biomedical engineering programs, among them Johns Hopkins University, Michigan Tech University, North Carolina State University and Georgia Tech University. He says he was drawn to the field because he wants to "save lives and make an impact."
"I think biomedical engineering is a really awesome field because it is so multifaceted. It really gives a solid base of combining technology and the medical industry," he said. "So for instance, I could do anything from predicting when a drug would work in a certain test group of people, to engineering genetics, to developing new robots, for instance the new Da Vinci telemedicine robot that allows doctors to operate on other people around the world."