PINETOP-LAKESIDE — There was a gathering at the old Blue Ridge Elementary School on White Mountain Boulevard in Pinetop-Lakeside last Thursday, and everywhere you looked, someone appeared to be sparked with creative ideas and seemed fascinated.

It was a gathering to celebrate the opening of the Fab Lab. The Fab Lab might be fabulous, but it gets its name from fabrication, that is, high tech digital fabrication. Last week the Fab Lab hosted an open house.

The lab is the result of joining of the STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering and math) learning project at Blue Ridge High School with the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension 4-H program led by Steve Gouker with Blue Ridge Science teacher, Kevin Woolridge. Gouker also resides in Pinetop-Lakeside.

Blue Ridge Schools have the only 4-H Fab Lab in America.

The program is open to any student who is a 4-H member in Navajo or Apache County and they are welcome to come to Blue Ridge to use the equipment after school, while the lab remains open to all the Blue Ridge students.

The school’s STEM program is now working with the U of A Extension program to provide this fantastic learning center for the availability of 4-H members to learn about trade innovations and patents with other labs internationally. “It’s where the word ‘extension program’ really comes into view,” said, Gouker. “If someone in Canada comes up with a new idea, we can get online with them and create virtually the same things or develop some of those ideas into other inventions or patents. There will be an international sharing of ideas available to the students.”

At the open house last week, science teachers walked around with pride, while kids were building prototypes and parts in the 3-D printer. Some were watching the Epilog laser-etching machine carve “Blue Ridge Baseball” into a stainless steel cup. Others were printing graphics on their phone cases in a Roland printer that can adapt to three-dimensional objects such as cups, thermoses or cases. Then there were others, who were just making huge posters with exceptional quality. There was also a display of hydroponics — growing plants without soil.

There were other students in an adjoining room learning how to make circuits to provide functioning sensors, such as backup sensors for cars to tell you when there is an object within a certain distance. Others were setting up sequences for LED lights to flash.

One visitor to the Fablab opening was Robert Butler, a consultant in the coding industry, who was there to see if he could help introduce his expertise into the learning center as well.

“I have been in discussion with the leadership here, including Superintendent Mike Wright, about the prospect of bringing in a University of Arizona program called Boot Camp. It’s offered through Trilogy Education Services in New York. They offer contemporary programs that offer coding and database management. They deal with languages such as JavaScript, MySQL, and others. We’re looking at bringing this in and a lot of ideas need to be worked out, but the jobs in this industry would pay very well. There are all kinds of jobs that can be created locally out of this kind of work,” said Butler.

The Roland DGA Company has donated over $40,000 to the program’s Fab Lab and sent representative Dan Wilson from their home office in Irvine, Calif., to attend the event. Wilson proudly showed his company’s devices to all who came around and inquired with the leaders of the program to see where else his company could help with their learning tools.

Woolridge had previously been involved in 4-H with Gouker, when the two decided to try and increase STEM learning to all students and share the technology with rural areas where they may have the animals and such for 4-H, but not the technology tools to aid in their digital education. In turn, students in the city don’t have the ability to have animals and learn the agricultural aspects.

Woolridge and Gouker work together to lead the lab and develop its goals. Woolridge says his goal is that the White Mountains becomes known in the state for its innovative STEM learning programs and that it draws people to come here for that innovative learning. The program could be expanded to fill other vacant classrooms in the building.

“It has the potential to elevate this area. Soon we will be adding metalworking, plasma cutters, robotics, medical and hydroponics as part of their 4-H agriculture program,” Woolridge said.

Woolridge hopes that if anyone is able to donate to the Community-Wide, 4-H After School Fablab Program, they could do so through the district’s Fablab account. The program isn’t just for Blue Ridge, it is open to any 4-H student in the area during the after-school program. To contact the lab, their email is: fablab@brusd.k12.az.us

Reach the reporter at bmartinson@wmicentral.com

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