Engineering marvels aren’t accidental, especially in 2014.
It takes a highly specific menu of equipment to perform the most impressive feats of design and fabrication. In an age of unparalleled technological achievement, operating a cutting-edge engineering workshop boils down to a precise collection of top-notch tools, resources that combine the latest technological marvels with old-school shop tools.
A laser engraver and cutter. A precision CNC milling machine. A large format router. A vinyl cutter. A 3-D printer. These are the keys to unlocking a sophisticated world of design and manufacturing in 2014.
“With those pieces of equipment, theoretically you can make almost anything,” said Ben Nuebel , a technology and pre-engineering teacher at Cherokee Trail High School.
Nuebel and his students should know. As of this school year, the fabrication lab (“fab lab” for short) at Cherokee Trail boasts all of those cornerstones, and the set of tools has caught the attention of a prestigious and accomplished international community. Earlier this month, Nuebel and his colleagues received word that Cherokee Trail is among the first high schools in the country to be officially named part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Fab Lab Network by the official foundation.
The network comprises labs across the globe that include specific pieces of equipment. With its lasers, cutters and design software, Cherokee Trail’s fab lab is now in the same network as top-of-the-line facilities from Iceland to Spain. The high school’s fab lab is the only officially designated facility in Colorado, and one of only 59 in the entire country. There are a total of 416 across the world.
For teachers like Nuebel, the designation offers an important resource for encouraging and training the next generation of innovators.
“I fully believe that within the next five years, I’ll have a student graduate and be the next Bill Gates, the next Steve Jobs,” he said. “My principal’s message this year was to ‘keep calm and teach on’; I told her, we’re too excited to keep calm. We have so much stuff going on … We can do almost anything now, so as teachers, we’re trying to push the limits of the curriculum.”
So far, that effort has included work on high-tech gear and scaled-up versions of the latest in nanotechnology. Architecture students have been able to produce top-of-the-line plans and models for homes and businesses, and an enterprising business student have already used the lab to design a new line of nail painting equipment.
An upcoming senior project will see a student constructing a quad-copter, a type of remote-control helicopter powered by four rotors. Nuebel said the project will draw on all of the elements of the newly dubbed fab lab, including the 3-D printer, the CNC milling machine, the laser engraver and the vinyl printer/cutter. The job will necessitate precise calculations and detailed plans, but Nuebel was quick to add that a lot of the construction process will come down to old-fashioned problem solving and critical thinking.
“The cool thing is we don’t know what the most complex elements will be yet,” he said. “This is a real-world problem and there is no one ‘right answer’ to solve it.”
Even so, Nuebel and his students are sure they’ll find a way to turn their ambitious engineering plans into a tactile reality.
“We are confident that we now have the tool set for every student to discover the best solution for their project, problems, inventions and innovations,” he said. “One of their driving ideas is the democratization of digital fabrication, getting it out there and giving the people opportunity to use it … As the network evolves, we will be able to access that and connect with other people who have the same equipment,” he added, pointing to a promising wealth of possible collaborations to come.
-- Posted Oct. 2, 2014