Westerville News & Public Opinion

Mobile Fab Lab will bring 3-D printer for 7th-graders

Grant from Ohio's Straight A Fund pays most of cost for the new middle school science lab

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Tight deadlines led the Westerville Board of Education to hold a special meeting to approve installation projects for a new mobile classroom, which is scheduled for student use in August.

With the help of a grant from Ohio's Straight A Fund, the district invested in a mobile classroom to help teach seventh-grade introductory engineering classes in the middle schools.

The mobile lab is the MIT Mobile Fab Lab, short for fabrication laboratory. The grant funds $76,000 of the $98,000 electrical and lot-paving installation expenses. But delayed responses from possible vendors to construct the lab meant the district fell short on funding.

Scott Reeves, the district's executive director of secondary academic affairs, said once the district received specifications from vendors and realized what site work for the lab would entail, officials realized they lacked the money.

The district is still working on securing the necessary $22,000 to fully cover the costs. If the district cannot find the money, board President Nancy Nestor-Baker said the remaining cost will have to be pulled out of the district's capital improvements fund.

The mobile lab is transportable: The 40-foot trailer will move to all the middle schools by truck. The lab will house industry-level laser cutters, a 3-D printer, robots and computer programs to educate children from idea concepts through production.

The board approved at Monday's meeting the cost for the lab's electrical work by Garber Electric for $49,400. The board also approved the lot paving work to support the mobile classroom by Heiberger Paving, for $48,639.

Superintendent John Kellogg said the board's approval needed to be given quickly so construction crews can finish before school starts.

"If it looks like a two-week delay to the project isn't going to be that disruptive, the magnitude of it was pretty big," Kellogg said.

Typically, the district would have a three-week bid process for companies to compete for the work. Since the grant required work to be secured so soon, the district shopped around for a company instead of waiting for companies submitting bids.

"This was a two-year project that was crammed into about six months," Kellogg said. "We could have made the choice to delay (the bidding), but the money has to be spent by Sept. 30 as part of the grant requirement."

Board member Carol French worried that the truncated bid time meant the district did not receive the best price for the work and taxpayers will pay more than they should.

"My concern is we need to get word out to all vendors and give them opportunities," she said. "Yes, the majority of this funding is from the Straight A Grant, but the grant money is taxpayer money. The issue is we need to give the opportunity to get the best deal."

The $98,000 project came in $27,000 less than the onsite contractor's estimate, said Jeff LeRose, district facilities and operations director.

Though the funding process was different, the district managed to save money, Kellogg said.

"Really, all we didn't do was publicize through that public bidding process. Just like if you were to buy a car. You wouldn't put an ad in the paper for buying a car and trying to find the best price. You find a couple of people and shop around. That's basically what we did," Kellogg said.

Necessary construction to accommodate the Mobile Fab Lab is scheduled to be completed by the start of the school year.

The Westerville Board of Education meets next at 6 p.m. June 30 at the Early Learning Center, 936 Eastwind Drive.

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