DELRAN – There was a very good reason for state Commissioner of Education Lamont O. Repollet to return to a place he did not have fond memories of.
As a member of the Carteret High School basketball team, Repollet and his teammates took the long bus ride for a game at Delran High School.
About 30 years later he was back for the kickoff celebration at the future home of the Delran Innovation and Fabrication Laboratory.
“As the (Delran) superintendent (Brian Brotschul) talked about, going back to 1988, it was a battle going against the Sacca brothers,” said Repollet, smiling. “Needless to say, I didn’t have a great taste in my mouth when it came to Delran, but I’m very excited about being here.
Repollet said a special assistant at the Department of Education is a Delran resident with a first-grader participating in robotics.
“So when you’re talking about innovation, building the next generation of workforce, you’re talking about starting at the level of first grade, kindergarten," he said at the kickoff event on Nov. 30. “We have some students across New Jersey in grade K that are coding. So we’re talking about preparing the next generation workforce. It starts with innovative labs like this.”
That’s the intention of “The Fab Lab,” to be built in the 3,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by the high school's defunct auto shop. It has been used as storage space for nearly 10 years.
Construction work will begin this month with completion expected in the fall of 2019. The completely refurbished site will feature laser cutters, 3D printers, electronic testing devices, woodworking equipment and other tools for hands-on learning that teaches students important technological skills.
There will be new storefront windows, vinyl flooring, drop ceilings with LED lay-in fixtures along with a testing area, work tables and various fabrication areas.
The kickoff event was hosted by the Delran STEM Ecosystem Alliance in partnership with the Delran Township Board of Education. The Alliance, launched in 2017, is one of four designated STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) ecosystems in the state.
Delran School District STEM co-coordinators and co-leads of the Alliance, Erica DeMichele and Mary Jo Hutchinson, spearheaded the event to share their “STEM cradle-to-career vision.” The pair helped introduce plans for the Fab Lab to the crowd of about 150 which included members of the community, students, parents and more.
“The Digital Fabrication Laboratory is not just for K-12 Delran students; we are partnering through the ecosystem model with (Rowan College at Burlington County) Perkins Center for the Arts. We are really trying to grow and expand any offerings that are going to be able to affect and bring our community into this space and create a sustainable funding stream,” DeMichele said.
Partnering with Rowan Burlington will include expanding dual-enrollment credit opportunities for Delran High School students who will be provided with a pathway to enter various engineering programs with advanced standing.
Other attendees at the celebration included state Sen.Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Somerset, and philanthropist Laura Overdeck.
“It’s critically important for our future to make sure that we’re training our kids to have an opportunity to be ready for the jobs of tomorrow,” said Singleton, who recently moved to Delran.
Singleton said he was excited to hear the program would put an emphasis on women and minorities, calling them "underrepresented in STEM fields."
The project has an anticipated cost of $1.5 million, DeMichele said. The renovations will be paid for by the district with local funds. DeMichele and Hutchinson continue to write grant proposals to offset the Fab Lab’s materials, tooling needs and to support the professional development of the staff and ecosystem partner. They are awaiting more than $500,000 in grant notices.
Also, DeMichele said since 2016, the district has been supported by the TIES Foundation, the Overdeck Foundation, PSE&G, Sustainable Jersey for Schools and by employees from Lockheed Martin in the areas of STEM materials, professional development, targeted/technical assistance and curriculum design.
Brotschul said the Fab Lab is will encourage students to explore different STEM careers and develop technical skills by engaging in hands-on activities that coincide with what teachers teach in their classrooms.
“It certainly is a very proud moment for us here in Delran Township for us to begin the next stages of our work,” he said.
Repollet, the former Asbury Park Superintendent of Schools, said there’s an energy in New Jersey regarding innovation.
Gov. Phil Murphy recently unveiled his economic development strategic plan called “The State of Innovation: Building a Stronger and Fairer Economy in New Jersey.”
“Just imagine some of the great things they can create in this space,” Repollet said. “This is an example of what New Jersey is doing in leading the way in regards to the state of innovation. We’re extremely excited about what’s going on.”