Last week, a few of us from the MENTOR Makerspace team attended the FabLearn 2012: Digital Fabrication in Education conference at Stanford University’s School of Education. We met educators, researchers, and designers from around the world excited to teach kids how to make in the classroom. Several of our own Makerspace teachers were there: Jeannine, Barry, and Bill from San Joaquin County’s Da Vinci Center, David from The Athenian School, and Aaron from Lighthouse Community Charter School. I spoke on a panel about research, but a clear highlight for me was hearing the Young Makers panel: five of our Makerspace students talked about their projects and what they wanted to make next. Javier of Lighthouse and Brandon of Wallenberg both wanted to send things into space!

As Paulo Blikstein opened the conference, he made the point that FabLabs aren’t science labs (which tend to be too cookbook and standardized), and they aren’t robotics labs (which tend to be hyper-competitive.) It’s important to have tools and projects without clear results or pathways, but always with ways to explore more. Kids should be able to make things that they can take home.

Vipul Redey outlined some of the considerations he has kept in mind as he plans a network of FabLabs / Makerspaces in India: sustainability, teacher training, display space, storage space, demarcation zones, lab capacity for students and teachers, and the oft-forgotten ventilation. He also pointed to the Hole-in-the-Wall project.

Researchers from the Interactive Design Lab at University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany hosted a workshop on Fritzing: Create Electronics. They covered introductory information on Arduinos, and then had groups of three play around with basic projects: blinking LEDs, fades, analog inputs, audio, etc. They displayed their open-source software that allows students/teachers to show what they’re creating in three ways: breadboard, schematic, and PCB, all of which update automatically.

In the afternoon, educator Gary Stager spoke about project-based learning, reiterating the importance of genuine & authentic projects, short & compelling prompts, cascading levels of complexity in projects. Both in his afternoon workshop and on the research panel that I shared with Gary, he shared video clips to help illustrate his points. I was especially charmed by the reminder of The Little Rascals, whose scruffy ingenuity had been forgotten in the dust of my childhood memories. Those clever boys designed quite a fun Rube Goldberg machine to get their fire station activated in “Hook and Ladder“–their “Automatick (sic) Alarm” starts after about 1:20 in that video if you’d like to enjoy a bit of nostalgia. Also on the research panel, Sherry Hsi shared her work repurposing the globes in science centers called Math on a Sphere, a national effort at igniting curiosity called Science Learning Activation Lab, and a science and math activity-sharing resource, Howtosmile.

MIke Eisenberg of the Craft Technology Group at University of Colorado at Boulder opened day two with a talk about the “content-rich, dignified, creative activities,” in contrast to what we hear from a lot of educators working in technology who are often focused on “the skills of tomorrow.” Eisenberg doesn’t believe in teaching skills but finding ways to end the divide between the manual and liberal arts. He made an analogy of this moment in technology development: the Apple II is to 1978 as MakerBot is to 2012. From having students 3D-print physical models translating da Vinci’s sketches from centuries ago into ABS plastic, to finding a new spin to digitally enhancing traditional kid crafts like origami and building with blocks, Eisenberg’s talk gave both a vivid picture of the playfully inventive classroom of today and the future, as well as some new ways to think and talk about the philosophy underpinning these educational directions.

Later on day two, FabLearn put on a demo session that felt like a small Maker Faire. I hope to profile some of the projects in greater detail later, but for now I’ll tell you about a sketching program designed to create files for laser cutters, called Sketch It, Make It (SIMI). This very clever software, which Gabe Johnson worked on as part of his doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University’s codelab uses a tablet and simple gestures to create 2D shapes. In his video linked to the image at left, you can see how a user with a pen tablet can easily create vector graphics, and then refine them using some of the basic notation from geometry, like the hash for equal length, or a right angle box to square off the turns made within the original drawing. Although he had conceived it primarily as a design tool to output files for use on a laser cutter, it struck me as a deligthtfully sneaky way to get kids to play around with some basic rules of geometry.

All of the demos had something fun to share….

  • drawbotdrawbot: hands-on fundamentals of 3d printing & machining (see picture, right)
  • Face-Me: Platform to Design, Fabricate, and Play
  • Hummingbird Robotics Kit: Arts, Crafts, Robots!
  • Curiosity Machine: Using Technology to Bring Hands-on Engineering Learning Home
  • Digital Woodworking: Creative designing and machining techniques using a Shopbot Desk CNC router
  • MakersFactory: Teaching 3D Visualization Skills
  • Midas: Fabricating Custom Capacitive Touch Sensors to Prototype Interactive Objects
  • Squishy Circuits – A Tangible Approach to Circuit Design
  • State Machine Trainer
  • Tangle: A Tan-Based Construction Kit for 3D Modeling: Laura Devendorff, a summer intern from our partners Otherlab who is studying mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, designed with Jonathan Bachrach and Saul Griffith, a system that’s like a tangram building kit (reminiscent of Magna-tiles) with software that allows you to plan your more complicated models digitally before you start to build.

On the panel of educators, Art teacher Tomás Vegas showed us a great video of the students in the Design Workshop at Castanheiras School in São Paulo, Brazil. David Otten from The Athenian School looked back to his years working on a PhD in mechanical engineering for lessons of what worked well about that time of tremendous learning. He cited four things that made that time so successful in his education: “a project that I come up with, lots of unstructured time, fabrication tools, peers to brainstorm with: lab-mates and advisors”: all things he tries to implement in his Makers Studio work now at Athenian. Angi Chau, director of the innovative Bourn Lab of The Castilleja School shared an interesting model: younger students who aren’t yet trained on the machines submit work orders for their projects. By creating a foolproof plan to pass off to another person, they are learning about scale (the curriculum goal for the assignment), without the immediate overhead of having them all fully trained to use each machine. The educators’ panel ended with the moderator asking how many schools would have Makerspaces in five years. Bill Church of Tufts University, who teaches in New Hampshire, took a cue from our own MENTOR Makerspace goals, and said if we hope to have 1000 schools in three years, then he imagines ten to the fifth power, or 100,000 schools in five years. Although his answer was intended to point to a worldwide spread, Betsy Williams, a current doctoral candidate in the economics of education at Stanford pointed out that we have 132,656 schools in the United States–perhaps we could we reach all of those–and then Betsy also opined that the current educational climate was a consequence of the accountability movement of a couple of decades ago, when we decided as a society that everybody should go to college. Brian Cohen of Beam Camp asserted that the machines will proliferate and improve to such an extent that we won’t have separate spaces for making in schools, but that fabrication tools will be integrated into many different kinds of classrooms, more ubiquitously.

Edith Ackermann closed the conference with a thought-provoking–verging on poetic–keynote in which she posed a number of questions to get us to consider making in schools in a historical context. Is the Maker movement a new umbrella for some long-favorite ideas? And what makes an experience worth having? Edith will share her slides and text, and we’ll provide a link.

For more about the conference, look for #fablearn, follow @fablabatschool, or join facebook.com/groups/fablearn2012 . If you’re sorry to have missed the conference, Paulo may hold an additional Summer Program for Teachers in summer 2013.

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2 Responses to FabLearn 2012: Digital Fabrication in Education Conference

  1. [...] I spoke on a panel about research, but a clear highlight for me was hearing the Young Makers panel: five of our Makerspace students talked about their projects and what they wanted to make next. …  [...]

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