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.
“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.”
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?”
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.