Mike Connor’s life changed because of a newspaper article.
In 2011, the Stoughton, Wisconsin-based engineer read a Pioneer Press story about a Fab Lab, or fabrication laboratory, opening in a Minnesota high school through the Fab Foundation. This organization began at MIT and has helped establish small-scale workshops around the globe to empower students to innovate through technology and digital fabrication.
At the time, most Fab Labs were on college campuses, but Minnesota was about to open the first high school-based Fab Lab in the U.S. Connor decided he wanted to help launch the second.
With a grant from his employer, Connor began fundraising, eventually raising $200,000 to get the program started. He convinced the Stoughton school board to find space in the high school building, and the Stoughton High School Fab Lab opened in the fall of 2013.
The lab lets students build and test engineering designs as they learn to cut vinyl, create with a 3D printer, laser cut, practice computer-controlled milling and more. In the last decade, the program has grown exponentially, expanding to include weekend and evening activities for adults as well as a second location: an Innovation Center at the Stoughton Middle School. The Stoughton Fab Lab regularly refreshes the technology to stay up with new trends, thanks to support from donors like Alliant Energy.
Connor’s involvement has grown as well. “I have two roles. One is as an advisor — I’m a consultant to the school district, so I maintain the technology, I write all the grants for new equipment and do teacher training,” Connor said. “My second role, which is my purpose, is my volunteering.”
Now retired, Connor spends at least 15 to 20 hours a week at the lab, where he guides students on their projects. While Connor initially expected that the students who participated would want to pursue STEM careers after high school, he quickly found that Fab Lab had a much broader appeal for students with all types of interests — especially when it comes to hands-on experimentation.
“It’s one of the only experiential learning things, besides sports, that they get to do,” Connor said. “I tell them, ‘This is a place where you’ll have to search for some answers.’” The students’ grades are based on effort and a work journal rather than success or failure.
In fact, Connor considers failure an important part of the learning experience. “We’ve really taught these kids that failure’s bad. The FabLab is all about failure,” said Connor. “They say, ‘Aw, Mike, this didn’t work out,’ and I say, ‘Good for you.’”
Because of its unique attributes, Connor believes the Fab Lab prepares students for careers in any field. They learn innovation, flexibility and tenacity — things that translate across career paths. “All companies want new employees that know how to problem solve,” said Connor.
Word of Fab Lab Stoughton’s success has spread throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest. Connor said 35 different school districts have visited in the past several years.
Meanwhile, the original Stoughton Fab Lab continues to flourish. In 2022, it served as the setting for a season six episode of Make48, a national DIY show co-sponsored by Alliant Energy. Make48 and the Stoughton Fab Lab have both received Alliant Energy’s support because of their emphasis on innovative problem-solving. In fact, several Alliant Energy employees appeared in the Fab Lab-set episode, where they provided encouragement and support to the makers.
In a little over a decade, Mike Connor’s idea has gone from a newspaper article to a statewide movement and a national TV show. Even with all this progress, though, Connor still considers volunteering with high school students his real reward. “Personally, I get more than I give. This has happened way beyond my wildest dreams.”