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Laser cutter in operation at Steamboat high school thanks to grant

Trainer Leah Aegerter, left, with Anderson Ranch Arts Center works with art teacher Lisa Derning, middle, and media specialist Nicole DeCrette about a laser cutter inside the Steamboat Springs High School.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For about a year, a laser cutter sat in a box at Steamboat Springs High School.

It was obtained through an innovation grant from the Steamboat Springs Education Fund.

With that grant money, the school also purchased the iPads on which students can create before uploading their designs to the laser cutter.

“We got the tool, but not the training,” said Nicole DeCrette, media specialist and MakerSpace coordinator at the high school. 

Now, with another CAP grant, staff will gain the training and expertise to be able to use it in class, and grow a new partnership with the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village.

The Colorado Arts Partnerships grant-making program launched in 2014 through a partnership between Colorado Creative Industries and Think 360 Arts for Learning.

The grants are focused on goals of “accessibility, building community connections, leveraging school investment, and visibility.”

It’s not uncommon, DeCrette said, for equipment to come without the additional resources required to get it fully operational and being utilized most effectively.

The second grant provided for Leah Aegerter, a digital fabrication technician, to set up the machine and provide staff and students with instruction on how to use the laser cutter.

Traveling to Steamboat from Anderson Ranch several times a year, Aegerter will also talk to students about career pathways in the art and design world, and give an overview of the laser cutter’s wide range of interdisciplinary applications.

Her job, Aegerter explained, means working on “any machine that requires computer file to create a physical product.”

While a student at Rhode Island School of Design, Aegerter took an elective class on digital fabrication. She was hooked.

Graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in fine arts, her primary focus was and remains on sculpture. And in her own creations,  “digital fabrication is another tool in my pocket that I use.”

But setting up the laser cutter in the high school library wasn’t exactly “plug and play.”

There are potential fire hazards and the machine must be properly vented to the outside. It hooks up to a computer, from which programs and designs are uploaded, telling the laser cutter what shapes to cut up or patterns to etch.

The machine uses its “focused beam of energy,” Aegerter described, to cut or engrave into a variety of materials — anything that can burn.

Primarily used in industrial manufacturing, the technology is also used in architecture for creating models, sign-making and other crafts and trades — as well as in the realm of fine art.  It is also used in engineering, aerospace and the medical field.

The laser doesn’t cut through glass or metal, but it can etch complex designs and photographs in those harder materials, Aegerter described.

Several of art teacher Lisa Derning’s classes will learn how to use the machine for their projects, but the machine is also available to any student who wants to learn.

That’s a central goal in her job, DeCrette said, to ensure that all students have the same access to resources. And that’s why the laser cutter is in the library, she added. More students and staff see it, find ways into incorporate into their curriculum, or get a one-on-one introduction and use it for individual projects.

Assembling other pieces of technology — like their two 3D printers — in the library leads to a greater fostering of creativity throughout the student body, DeCrette said. “And we need more creativity in the workforce.”

Buzzing away against the wall, the machine last week was busy cutting different sizes of perfect circles into cardboard.

By being able to build a variety of shapes and surfaces, the vision of an artist can be translated into new and different forms, Aegerter described.

It has uses from the very practical, like engraving a plaque, to reproductions, to boundless creations in fine art, DeCrette noted.

In the world of technology, “everything is changing so fast,” Derning said. Now students do a lot of drawing directly on an iPad “like a piece of paper,” Derning said; their work instantly digitalized.

In trying to keep up with technology, “we have to think creatively, and outside the box,” she said. And with technology like the laser cutter and iPads, it is about the process as much as the end product, Derning said. “This will provide the opportunity to service innovation to kids to explore based on inquiry.”

It leads to abstract problem solving, she said, and allows students to experiment and find their own path through their inquiry.

Derning used the analogy of a wheel, which has multiple spokes but limitations within the shape. “We want a tree that shoots branches out all over the place, she said. “Because of that thought process — that’s how we cure cancer.”

And collaborations to share expertise, such as this new one with Aegertar and Anderson Ranch, “are huge,” DeCrette said, in being able to use new technology with the greatest impact.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.


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