Exceptional Learning with Digital Fabrication

Digital fabrication provides students of all abilities with the knowledge and skills necessary for success.

No two students are the same, and no two students learn in the same way. Through digital fabrication, learners of all abilities can explore education through hands-on engaging curriculum designed for their needs, and the students at the Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1) Educational Campuses at Colonial and Waynesburg get to experience this every day.

The IU1 Educational Campuses at Colonial and Waynesburg serve students in grades 3-12 from Fayette, Greene, and Washington counties with special educational, behavioral, emotional and mental health needs. IU1 was one of ten educational agencies from across the nation to receive a digital fabrication lab or Fab Lab, funded by Chevron and the Fab Foundation with support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Intermediate Unit 1 FabLab / photo: Matthew R. Day

You may be wondering what exactly a Fab Lab is. Or maybe you have heard or been to one, but until you have seen one in action with students of varying abilities you have not yet seen its entire impact. Fab Labs provide a platform for making, tinkering, and exploring with high tech equipment through authentic real-world contexts that enables them to progress through the concept, design, prototyping, redesign, and final product stages of the engineering design process. These high tech digital fabrication tools allow educators to create customized hands-on engaging lessons for all of their students. When in the Fab Lab, students that were once distracted become driven to complete the day’s goal, students who previously exhibited behavior issues in class now have no discipline referrals, and the biggest impact thus far has been for those students who were reserved or reluctant in class but have now become confident leaders.

It’s hard to explain how a laser cutter, vinyl cutter, soldering equipment, or even a 3D printer can have such an impact on student behavior, focus, or confidence. However, over the years watching students at the campus schools with special needs, behavioral needs, or mental health needs excel with their projects in the Fab Lab you begin to understand the bigger picture of how these high-tech tools and hands-on interactive projects have impacted the lives of these students with exceptional abilities.

Intermediate Unit 1 FabLab / photo: Matthew R. Day

The Fab Labs at the Colonial and Waynesburg campuses are rarely empty as classes are scheduled daily for all students, grades 3 through 12. Students have started in the Fab Lab by making simple projects for themselves, which has now grown into so much more. Now student projects consist of not only personal projects but projects that can better the community, projects for local organizations, and projects to improve their own school environment. Students work through the entire design process from their idea to prototype to the final product, learning the software, materials, and equipment along the way. A great example of a recent student project was completed with visually impaired students.

IU1 students with visual impairment needs came into the Fab Lab wanting to make a product that would benefit not only themselves but others with the same visual needs: they wanted to make “scan-stands”. A scan-stand is a device that assists with reading documents allowing the user to place a tablet or phone on the stand to take a steady focused picture to then be enlarged. Students were currently using scan-stands, however they were finding them flimsy, which lead to limited use and unclear pictures. Through the Fab Lab these visually impaired students were able to create an original idea and see the project come to fruition before their eyes all while using relevant, real-world skills that can be applied to their future endeavors. Students worked for a week on the project with school staff and the Fab Lab manager testing materials, prototyping designs, and building a working product in which each student was able to customize and take home. Now, not only have these students equipped themselves with the tools they need to succeed at everyday tasks, they have provided a resource for other students with visual needs to succeed in the coming years.

Intermediate Unit 1 FabLab / photo: Matthew R. Day

It is in projects and moments like these that you see the impact of digital fabrication, making, and innovation for students of all learning abilities.

“It has been an amazing experience working in our lab over the past few years. I have enjoyed seeing the students light up when setting and achieving their goals designing, creating, and taking ownership of their creations in the lab,” says IU1 Educational Campus at Colonial Teacher, Kevin McKee, “I can tell that it has definitely helped build self-esteem and confidence in our student population. The students enjoy working in this type of setting and have shown interest in possibly pursuing a career related to digital fabrication, design, or technology.”

Students who may not learn in a traditional setting can now thrive in an environment where failing is part of learning, ideas of all kinds are possible, and where you can set and achieve your own goals.

Intermediate Unit 1 FabLab / photo: Matthew R. Day

As technology advances, so must the practices within our schools to ensure that students of all learning abilities are prepared for the future. Through the IU1 Fab Lab and mobile Fab Lab, we will continue to strive to be an innovative educational keystone, transforming education and learning for the countless students, educators, and community members we serve. We invite you to see our students in action and visit our Fab Labs where you can dream it, design it, and make it!

For more information on IU1 or the IU1 Fab Lab go to iu1.org/fablab or follow us on twitter @IU1FabLab and @IU1Tweets.

Published June 12, 2018

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