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Tennessee Teachers Turn to Pittsburgh Fabrication Institute

A $1 million program established by the Volkswagen Group of America will give students in Hamilton County, Tennessee, hands-on access to digital fabrication tools like robotics, laser cutters, and programmable microcomputers. The automaker is partnering with the Hamilton County Department of Education to establish VW eLabs aimed at teaching twenty-first-century skills.

To administer the program, Volkswagen turned to the Chattanooga-based Public Education Foundation (PEF). After PEF’s Director of Innovative Learning Michael Stone and his colleagues selected the first batch of eight schools to receive funding, the next challenge was preparing educators to provide students with meaningful learning experiences using the new technologies, which ranged from 3-D printers to laser cutters.

To do that, Stone sent 17 Hamilton County teachers to the Pittsburgh Fabrication Institute, offered by the Elizabeth Forward School District (EFSD) in Elizabeth, PA.

“In awarding us this grant, Volkswagen charged us with not only opening these labs and making sure there wasn’t high-tech equipment just sitting there, but they were very clear that they wanted to see legitimate impact,” said Stone.

He found a perfect partner in the EFSD, which has taken a leading role in the maker movement and its extension into fabrication and “fab labs.”

Even to educators who regularly incorporate making into their lesson plans, fabrication may be a new concept. To Todd Keruskin, EFSD assistant superintendent, the fabrication lab offers much of the same potential for learning opportunities afforded by makerspaces, with an expanded tool kit.

“In a simple makerspace, you may have cardboard and tape and glue and bottle cleaners, and you can give kids design challenges that way,” said Keruskin. “In a fab lab, it’s the other side of the spectrum, with laser cutters and 3-D printers and plasma cutters.”

Learning to use the laser cutter at Pittsburgh Fab Institute / Photo by Ben Filio

While both makerspaces and fabrication labs pose interesting challenges to learners, the fabrication lab puts technology at the center of the experience.

“We’re getting kids to use technology not just to play Minecraft, but to ask themselves, ‘How do I use this to design and make?’” said Keruskin. “You can get kindergartners designing and printing, or first-graders using laser cutters.”

The Pittsburgh Fabrication Institute offered by the EFSD is a four-day conference providing educators hands-on opportunities to learn both design thinking and specific fabrication tools, ranging from vinyl cutters and 3-D printers to electronic components and CNC routers. In June 2017, it was offered for the third year, with attendance growing substantially over that time, from approximately 60 educators in 2015 to 140 this year, with attendees traveling from 12 different states.

Like fabrication itself, the Fab Institute emphasizes hands-on learning, and is designed to prepare teachers to return to their home schools comfortable with a range of equipment, ready to instruct and inspire students.

“Educators don’t want to be talked to and be bored,” said Keruskin. “The only way to learn this stuff is by doing—and failing.”

It’s the exact process—what Keruskin calls a “growth mindset”—that he and other educators are trying to instill in their students.

“It’s a major part of the twenty-first–century skills we’re teaching,” he said. “We need to teach a growth mindset where they’re going to be resilient and push forward and if they don’t understand something they’ll figure it out.”

EFSD’s interest in the potential of makerspaces and fabrication labs began in 2011, when Keruskin and his superintendent, Bart Rocco, decided to seek out ways to enhance programs like woodshop and other hands-on electives, which at the time were being cut from the state’s education budget. They reached out to experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to leaders in the maker movement, including members of the Remake Learning network in the Pittsburgh region.

“When I went to school, we made a birdhouse or a step stool,” said Keruskin. “Those days are over. We want to be able to bring creativity and learning. How do we integrate a computer into wood shop? How do we get kids designing on computers?”

Going from digital design to physical product / Photo by Ben Filio

The district’s first efforts at makerspaces and fabrication were at the high school and middle school level, with efforts currently underway to implement these curricula in elementary schools.

“Creativity and innovation, these are the skills we’re trying to teach—twenty-first century skills,” said Keruskin. “We want kids to be more collaborative, and to be able to communicate—why did they design this, and why did they do it this way? They still need to read and know mathematics, but these are among the many skills that making brings out.”

Stone and the Chattanooga teachers returned to Tennessee energized, inspired by their experience at the Fab Institute.

“We loved the fully immersive experience,” he said. “It really lets teachers engage with the tool as if they were the students, and it’s not didactic. The teachers raved about the increase in their confidence to utilize the tools in the space.”

Grant Knowles, one of the participating teachers from Normal Park Museum Magnet School who this year will fill the role of VW eLabs specialist, noted the value of peer-to-peer learning that occurred between educators at the institute.

“One thing that stuck out was the ability to interact with other teachers,” he said. “You could collaborate and brainstorm with people who did this every day, and others who were learning the process.”

That openness was by design, said Keruskin. Over four days of participating in hands-on workshops and eating lunch together, teachers and administrators get to know one another, often sharing ideas on how to integrate fabrication into their curricula.

“People come to us at the Fab Institute each with a different background,” Keruskin said. “Oftentimes they try to help guide others with what they want to do in their own school.”

The Fab Institute seeks to bolster networking connections by holding additional meetings in the fall and spring, allowing educators to share ideas, comparing notes on their success integrating fabrication into different lesson plans.

“We don’t want this to be a standalone course in schools,” said Keruskin. “Back in the day, when I worked in computer class, the only time I touched a computer was in that class, and now computers are integrated into every class.”

While in Pittsburgh, Stone and representatives from the school district and from Volkswagen shadowed Keruskin throughout an entire school day.

“What we really liked in what we saw is the partnerships,” said Stone. “The way that Elizabeth Forward as a school district is embedding digital fabrication as a common thread in the education experience is more authentic than you see anywhere else in the country.”

Knowles saw evidence of the EFSD’s embrace of fabrication in a different facet of his Fab Institute experience:

“The presenters were excellent but the student assistants from Elizabeth Forward absolutely knew what was going on,” he said. “It was very clear this was something they were not only knowledgeable about but very invested in.”

“All of us felt very strongly that they were onto something and it felt like something we could scale, and take ownership over, and to a large degree replicate,” said Stone.

Indeed, there is talk of organizing a Tennessee Fabrication Institute in the months ahead.

Fab Labs, MakerSpaces Come to Pittsburgh Area Public Schools

At the new “dream studio” in the wing of a middle school, students play with digital and physical materials to invent their own iPod speakers. At fabrication labs in the local high schools, teens study digital manufacturing and test out their designs on new 3-D printers.

Elementary students are thinking up their own model cities in partnership with local engineering firms using modeling software, and teachers and students are experimenting in their schools’ robotics laboratory. Storage closets are becoming digital communications stations; music classrooms are morphing into digital production studios and immersive music centers.

These are the classroom spaces of the future. And the future is now in the Pittsburgh region where, thanks to some help from local foundations, public schools are brimming with opportunities for students to experiment with digital, maker, and STEAM learning. And more are on the way.

The local Allegheny Intermediate Unit, with support from the Benedum and Grable Foundations, has awarded $500,000 to 25 area school districts in the Pittsburgh region to integrate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) into public schools – with an emphasis on designing innovative spaces and places within school walls for students to experiment with digital technologies in a hands-on way.

Regular readers of this blog know that the DIY ethos of the maker movement is important to today’s learning environments. Hands-on learning is naturally engaging, and the skills students gain along the way– critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation, and collaboration–are those they’ll need in the workplaces of the future.

Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

Making is so engaging that the U.S. Department of Education is getting behind the movement. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan convened educational leaders last month to explore ways to develop learning experiences that better connect in-school and out-of-school time; better connect students to their passions, peers, communities and careers; and redesign our nation’s high schools to prepare students for a connected world of learning.

In addition to national leaders such as Joi Ito, director of MIT’s media lab and John Seely Brown, we were proud to see Alyssa Dangel, a local Pittsburgh high school student describe the new opportunities she and her fellow students have at her school, Elizabeth Forward High School in Elizabeth, PA.

“Whenever I think of my future, I’m thinking now I could work for a company that makes games,” she told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

Alyssa had enrolled in a 3-D modeling course offered through her school’s newly launched Entertainment Technology Academy, a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University.  She said the software has really changed her vision for her future and that the course was a learning experience for her teachers as well.

“Both the teacher and the student are learning at the same time,” she said. “While I was working on 3-D modeling, we would work on it together and fix problems together.”

Twenty-five schools districts received $20,000 in awards. The Pennsylvania school districts were in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Lawrence, Mercer, Washington and Westmoreland counties.  Each grant will be used to redesign and create spaces, such as classrooms and library areas, to engage students in STEAM subjects and projects.   These places add to the region’s building boom of new 21st-century digital learning spaces for students of all ages.

This is the fifth consecutive year that the Benedum and Grable Foundations have provided support for STEAM projects in the Pittsburgh region. The grants are distributed through the Center for Creativity, which works to connect the region’s diverse and creative resources with educators in order to infuse creativity into curriculum, instruction, and school culture.  Through the efforts of the foundations and the Center for Creativity, school districts throughout southwestern Pennsylvania have received more than $1 million in STEAM grants since 2009.

Is Making the Next Industrial Revolution?

Fab labs may not be on your radar, but they should be. Named by MIT professor and TED presenter Neil Gershenfeld after “digital fabrication,” the labs serve as an artists’ collective, a manufacturing plant, and a job training program all in one. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse delved into the burgeoning fab lab movement, and described their purpose quite succinctly. “Fab labs,” she said, “are community-based spaces providing members of the public access to high-tech equipment: for invention, for creativity, for learning.”

Equipped with vinyl cutters, mini mills, and 3D printers, among other high-tech tools, fab labs have been cropping up across the globe. Hesse reported that there are currently 150 fab labs around the world, and 150 more are under construction. While they certainly signify a kind of raw excitement both in and outside the maker community, some, like Gershenfeld and others, believe they represent a third industrial revolution.

Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired magazine, makes this argument in his new book “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution,” which delves into the impact of tinkerers on the U.S. economy.

“We’ve had two industrial revolutions,” said Anderson. “The first was the mechanical one, which replaced muscle power with machine power. The second was the computer revolution, replacing brain power with machine power.” Now, says Anderson, we are embarking on a third, which places the focus back on manufacturing—except, this time, with the aid of “smart machines.”

“The loftier goal of the fab lab is to reintroduce humans to the tactile experience of creation, a complicated goal in this age when hand-held mallets have been replaced by computer-controlled tools,” explains Hesse, who believes that fab labs will encourage people to question what it means to be “useful” in the 21st century.

If this is a signifier of the third industrial revolution, it is important for students to have access to these spaces and their accompanying mentors and tools. The “value of making” is one that experts, educators, and makers themselves have been trying to instill into young people. The hope is that one day there will be generations of workforce-ready content producers who are adept at using the tools afforded by advanced technology in a way that benefits their surrounding communities.

The problem? These labs obviously come with an expensive price tag, with 3D printers like the ShopBot costing more than $27,000. Luckily, a few policymakers have made it their business to see fab labs flourish. Illinois congressman (and physicist) Bill Foster, for example, recently proposed a bill vying for a National Fab Lab Network that would help provide funds and resources to fab labs across the country.

Foster was a successful teenage maker himself. He started a theatrical lighting company with his brother when we was 19 that now makes more than half of the theater lights in the country. He explained his impetus to back the bill, and to support the maker movement:

When I was a kid, you’d take apart lawn mowers, or rebuild hot rods, or take apart old radio and television sets and reconfigure the circuits to build wonderful, dangerous things. But that’s not available to kids today…. You can’t really take apart an iPhone and reconfigure the parts to do something wonderful. The most you can do is reprogram it with new apps. But it’s not the same as holding something you’ve designed.

If it passes, the National Fab Lab Network Act would, as Hesse put it, treat the labs like Little League or the VFW—“facilitating their creation, vetting prospective founders, matching donors with projects,” all of which are necessary to ensure the success of future the labs.

The new legislation is not the only financial boon to fab labs, either. The Hampton Township School District, located just outside of Pittsburgh, received a $20,000 grant in 2012 to design a mini fab lab of its own. The grant—which pertains to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics—was made available through The Center for Creativity and the Grable and Benedum Foundations. The grant will not only cover the construction of the fab lab, but will also fund the purchase of computer-aided design software, iPads, and laptops that will be compatible with the advanced technology in their new lab.

“The new lab will expand the district’s transition from a traditional technology education program to one with an engineering focus to help introduce engineering and computer science careers and spark student interest in those fields,” wrote reporter Bethany Hofstetter for TribLive.com.

I don’t know about you, but I can hardly imagine having access to such tools as an elementary or middle school student. The opportunity that these tools and spaces provide to students—one that encourages them to build whatever they want—is awe-inspiring, and it’s this kind of inherent excitement stemming from the fab labs that has given the movement so much momentum. It kind of makes one wonder: How could we know about these opportunities and not make them available to students?

In their introduction to “Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators,” Margaret Honey and David Kanter wrote this about makers and the zeitgeist behind their movement:

All together, makers are seeking an alternative to being regarded as consumers, rejecting the idea that you are defined by what you buy. Instead, makers have a sense of what they can do and what they can learn to do. Like artists, they are motivated by internal goals, not extrinsic rewards. They are inspired by the work of others.

If that isn’t an outstanding ideal for future generations, I’m not sure what is.