contributed photograph

LUHS?senior Nicole Harris designed this drink coaster for a Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation contest.
contributed photograph

LUHS?senior Nicole Harris designed this drink coaster for a Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation contest.
In 2017, Lakeland Union High School received a grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to develop a Fab Lab (a high-tech fabrication laboratory filled with 3D printers, laser engravers, computer numerical control routers and plasma cutters). Two years (and one additional grant) later, LUHS senior Nicole Harris is ready to show WEDC what she’s learned with her entry into this year’s design contest. 

Open to high school students working in one of the 43 Fab Labs across the state, the goal of the contest is to design a drink coaster representative of Wisconsin which can be given to foreign governments and businesses by top state dignitaries. 

“While we typically have selected items that are made in the state or have a strong connection to Wisconsin, giving gifts created in the state’s school Fab Labs is a unique way to showcase the talents of our students,” WEDC’s vice president of international business development Katy Sinnott said in a press release.

And, aside from a wheel of cheese or a Packers hat, what could be more Wisconsin than a drink coaster? 

It was perfect timing that brought Harris — who, at the age of four told her parents she wanted to be an architect — to LUHS right as the school was acquiring its first 3D printers. 

“(When I was) in eighth grade … (LUHS) got a 3D printer (and I was) like, ‘That sounds so cool,’” Harris remembered. “It was probably the smallest, cheapest 3D printer you could get but I was so excited about using it. I signed up for just about every engineering class I could … and learned as much as I could and I kind of took over the thing.”

Leah Trojan, the art, ceramics and digital imaging teacher at LUHS, as well as the Fab Lab attendant, praises Harris for her self-motivation. 

“Last year the staff had very little time in the Fab Lab,” she said. “(Harris would) get five minutes and she’d literally just sit there and watch YouTube videos on how to fix stuff.”

Harris said when LUHS received its first grant, technology and engineering teacher Mike Effinger said, “OK Nicole, you’re going to take care of the Fab Lab now.”

The most recent purchase, a state of the art laser engraver which will be used to make the coasters, was purchased at a discount thanks to Effinger. 

“Once you get that grant, all the companies are going to sell you something … because they know you have money spend,” Trojan said. “(Effinger) was really good, he said, ‘You know, we only have about this much money but we’d really like the 100 watt,’ so they discounted the 100 watt down to what we could afford.”

AP Laser, the company which makes the laser, originally started as a mortuary business, Trojan said. 

“They weren’t too happy with the machines they were getting to cut and engrave urns with, so they made their own,” Trojan said. “So now they’re in the laser engraver business and they’re trying to shed the whole mortuary business … what better company to have develop it, because you’re engraving into granite and you need to make this thing look good and last for a really long time and be decently cost effective. So their issues helped build that.”

Coaster contest

The contest encourages students to think in similarly ingenious terms, detailing specific parameters that the design must adhere to. In addition to creating a coaster that is recognizable to a global market as being representative of Wisconsin (sorry Packers, according to the WEDC you’re not a world-wide brand), it must also be made from local materials and cost less than $16 for a set of six. 

Harris has decided the coasters will be made out of maple, the state tree. Using Inventor, a computer program she learned freshman year, Harris has created a design which will feature an outline of the state of Wisconsin with symbolic drawings marking major cities.  

“Milwaukee’s going to have the cheese, Madison’s going to have the ‘W,’ La Crosse is going to have some lumber, Rice Lake is going to have outdoor activities, a guitar for Wausau because they have a lot of musical festivals, so I’ve just been slowly working on getting everything in there,” Harris said.

Of course, the map also features Minocqua, the birthplace of the design. 

Trojan, in her ninth year teaching at LUHS, is pleased Harris hasn’t been intimidated in working in a predominantly male setting. 

“It’s nice to have girls doing this because our woods class is all guys, but when we do have girls go into woods they’re like, “Oh I really like this, I should really do this,” Trojan said. “But when they look in here and they see a bunch of guys they’re like, ‘Oh, whatever, I’ll go do (something else).”

While currently there are only two girls working in the lab, Trojan says they want to have students placed in the lab to know it’s available to them. 

“We’ve pushed girls for so long now into math and whatnot, but that’s all they think it is,” she said. “They just think … I take a math class, period. I take a science class, period. We haven’t gotten them to the application of these things. To be taken seriously, a woman’s gotta know much more and be a hell of a lot more confident than a man does, unfortunately, that’s just how it is. So in addition to knowing your stuff you have to be extremely confident that you know your stuff and prove it.”

Harris acknowledges it wasn’t always easy being one of the only girls. 

“Freshman year I was signing up for all my engineering classes and I was praying there was going to be at least one other girl in my classes,” she recalled. “I was totally fine with being the only girl because I was like, ‘I’m doing this no matter what,’ but I was hoping there would be someone else there.”

But Harris didn’t let being in the minority stop her from making her mark. 

“Last year they gave out … awards (to) each student who was stellar in each department … and I won the award for the engineering department which is woods, auto, shop, (and) engineering … even though I’ve only taken the engineering classes,” she said.

As far as being one of the few girls, Harris takes it in stride. 

“People are always impressed, like, ‘Oh you’re a girl, that’s so cool,’ and I’m like, it’s not that much different than being a guy,” she said.

While the contest ended Dec. 30, Harris and her peers will be keeping busy, designing nameplates for the hockey team lockerroom and replacing signage around the school. 

They are also trying to consolidate the Fab Lab (which is currently spread out over a few different rooms) to the woods shop, in preparation for opening the lab to the public (a stipulation of the grant) by next year. 

Although Harris, who’s attending Milwaukee School of Engineering on an academic scholarship, will be gone by then, there should be a new crop of tech-savvy students around to teach the public what they’ve learned.