At Valley Middle School in Apple Valley, an eighth-grade project had students connect syringes to plastic, wood and cardboard parts they created themselves, making a mechanical arm that could pick things up using the principles of hydraulics.

At Prior Lake High School, 75 students are enrolled in a team-taught business and industrial tech class where they actually manufacture the products they want to sell.

At Apple Valley High School, students will be able to create everything from trophies to sports equipment — and will even design and build tables and cabinets for their brand new lab, opening this February.

Among metro area schools, fabrication laboratories — “Fab Labs” — are growing in popularity. The labs are places where students can create anything they dream up, using high-tech machines such as vinyl cutters, 3-D printers, laser engravers and “CNC routers,” meaning computer-controlled cutting machines.

No one is more enthused about the new spaces than the students, officials say.

“It’s amazing,” said Jim Lynch, a program manager at Apple Valley High School. “Working with students, I can tell you it’s just such an interest-generating thing, like moths gathering around a light. They don’t want to leave once you introduce them to the equipment.”

The labs aren’t just aimed at kids in industrial tech or computer classes. They will be integrated into disciplines like art and athletics.

“Our goal is ultimately that it would be available for all classes,” said Cathy Kindem, a teaching and learning coordinator in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district.

Education trends

The labs play into several larger educational trends, including an increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Another goal is to help students develop skills in school they will need in the workplace, like creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

During the last period of the day, Kyla Williams, a sixth-grader at Valley Middle School, carefully put transfer tape on a pile of vinyl decals to make stickers, one in the shape of “Hello Kitty.”

“It’s actually pretty fun, going through all the steps,” she said. “It’s amazing — you can make anything that’s a JPEG [a digital image] into a sticker.”

Prior Lake High School introduced a lab this fall, as did Valley Middle School of STEM, the state’s only middle school with one. Apple Valley High School will open its version in three months.

Mahtomedi and Stillwater high schools also have Fab Labs, as do some colleges.

The labs are popular across the country. Many are modeled after a “media lab” concept at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said Kindem, who spent two years researching them.

A popular MIT class called “How to Make Almost Anything” has become a model for the kind of creative curriculum many schools want the labs to foster.

“We’ve taught students how to take tests and regurgitate information, but this forces them into using higher-level thinking skills to solve problems,” Lynch said.

Another hallmark of the MIT model is that labs should be open to the community. All three schools are working on ways to make that happen, through community ed or open hours during weekends and evenings.

At night, local businesses could use the lab to create prototypes, said Dave Lund, principal at Prior Lake High School.

At Prior Lake, the lab is now mostly used for the business-meets-industrial tech class.

Using the 3-D printer, a student recently created a new cellphone case, he said, and an industrial tech teacher designed a long-handled plastic wrench to fix a small engine.

Community partnerships

Putting state-of-the-art labs in schools doesn’t come cheap. To help pay for the equipment, some districts are partnering with businesses.

Prior Lake’s lab has $80,000 worth of equipment, but the entire lab cost nearly $200,000. Sponsors like Seagate and Stratasys helped fund it, and the school also works with the University of Minnesota for teacher training and curriculum, Lund said.

Local metal manufacturer BTD donated $45,000 to Valley Middle School’s lab, which came with a $100,000 price tag.

Though the Lakeville company is growing, finding qualified workers can be challenging. BTD executives are hoping their partnership will entice students to one day consider a manufacturing career.

At Apple Valley High, a relationship with a local design company, Skyline, has four students mapping out what their lab will look like, down to furniture and cabinets, which they will make using the lab’s equipment. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that student involvement piece,” Lynch said. “If you think about it, it’s a really good cost savings, too.”

Lynch plans to offer students leadership opportunities as well, as lab assistants who help others. And eventually, he wants some machinery to be mobile, so students can use it throughout the school.

“My hope for this is that it becomes as common as printing a piece of paper,” he said. “It’s just what you do.”

Increasingly, schools are finding that when kids are engaged, they do better academically. With Fab Labs, students are “realizing they are able to build their own future,” Kindem said.

Or, as sixth-grader Devin Martin put it: “We’re learning to be creative and actually do a bunch of stuff.”