FAB(ulous) LAB: Public school gets pimped out!
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Jackson Hole High School just got a secret weapon. It will be why some students opt to transfer from their chic private schools in order to get enrolled in Bronc orange and black. Some already have.
The addition of a digital fabrication lab instantly makes Teton County School District a major player in a burgeoning technology-based subculture dubbed the Maker Movement. So-called makerspaces like the high school’s new Fab Lab are an offshoot of the hackerspace concept, which began in Germany in the mid-1990s. This shared-space archetype is part machine shop, part art studio and part brainstorming sessions, sometimes referred to as design incubation centers.
Fab Labs are to the conventional classroom what Madden NFL online is to Monday Night Football highlights. They represent a shift in the learning model. These cutting-edge makerspaces are a place where students witness “chalkboard stale” topics like science and math brought to life. Meaning and context are applied to learning through hands-on building and problem-solving. The result is high-end curriculum that’s enjoyable and engaging. Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you lessons learned this way are retained longer.
“Learning by doing is a big process. The best way to learn something is by doing it. Not reading about it, not watching somebody else do it, but actually doing it yourself,” said Sammie Smith.
The 41-year-old is the Career Education Coordinator at the high school and the woman behind the Fab Lab. “Is it a huge shift in education? I don’t know. I feel like it is. I feel like it should be. For us, as a school and as a district, I would say it is definitely one of the things we are trying to voice.”
New age learning
Technology is transforming education. Fab Labs are yesteryear’s wood/metal shops-meets-arts and crafts studio. Students apply digital design skills to create an end product using an array of computer-controlled mechanisms. The advent of tools like 3D printers, laser cutters and milling machines allows users to “make almost anything.” In fact, the anthem of the maker generation is: “If it can be imagined, it can be made.”
Politicians have charged today’s schools with the seemingly impossible: Prepare students for careers that don’t yet exist, using technology that hasn’t been invented yet. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 65 percent of today’s grade-school children will end up working jobs that are yet to be thought up. This shift in education has put an emphasis on 21st century-super skills like the four Cs – communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.
In addition to new age classroom curriculum is the current administration’s determination to bolster STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields of study among the nation’s kindergarten-through-college student body. The United States ranks a dismal 27th among developed countries in the proportion of college students earning bachelor’s degrees in science or engineering, according to a 2010 National Academies report.
With plenty of grant money available, Smith and her colleagues struck gold last year.
“Last September, the school district received a demonstration grant allowing us to show how we would take career technical skills and embed them into core academic content. What we came up with was installing a digital fabrication lab,” Smith said. “It was kind of Kathy’s [Milburn] idea. I had been following the maker movement but didn’t realize fabrication labs were being put into schools.”
Smith, Milburn and Pier Trudelle agreed the Fab Lab idea was the way to go. If approved, it would be the first of its kind in the state and one of only a few in the Intermountain West. To date, there are about 125 Fab Labs in 34 countries, with 37 in the United States, according to a master list kept by MIT.
“There are not many [Fab Labs] in high schools. So we had to actively seek them out,” Smith said. “I visited one in Minnesota – Mahtomedi High School in Minnesota, which is structured very much off the MIT platform. I also went to the Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. They’re working with Stanford University.”
Smith continued, “The MIT structure is based off a process called ‘Make Almost Anything.’ It’s fine, but then Stanford University added to it. A gentleman named Paulo Blikstein looked at what MIT was doing and thought, ‘This is great but it needs to be modeled for the academic world because it needs to look a little different when you put it into public schools.’ It’s all very, very new.”
Fab-fitting to JHHS
With few templates to work from, Smith fashioned three spaces out of existing locker bays and underutilized rooms. “Typically, in these types of models you have a thinking or collaborative space, a digital design space, and a making space,” she said.
The collaborative space at JHHS is a cozy-looking romper room with artificial turf and bright, flexible furniture that can be easily moved or stashed away. Students can diagram their ideas on the room’s dry erase whiteboard paint walls. Even the windows can be doodled on.
“This is really where idea creation starts,” Smith said. “It’s a successful model implemented and examined by a lot of major universities that are very STEM-based. This space really starts that design-thinking process because kids can come in here to a very unconventional type of classroom and feel unencumbered and free to think.”
While tackling an assigned challenge, students from mixed disciplines and backgrounds will be getting valuable real world experience. For many socially isolated, tech-savvy kids of today it will be their first taste of the power of “cloud thinking.”
“Our students need to learn how to work together. When they get out into the real world, you’ve got to work with many different people and share ideas,” Smith said. “You might have a kid that’s really good at science and one who excels in English. And then you’ve got a drama kid, maybe. And, basically, we are forcing them to work together to examine things from other perspectives, realizing that when you put a bunch of different people in a room, all with different expertise, you are going to get better output – instead of thinking in isolation and coming up with an answer all alone. This is a much more authentic way to do things. But it’s very new. In a lot of education approaches, we typically don’t do things this way.”
Smith stressed that the school’s hope is the Fab Lab concept will be a multi-layered model, reaching far beyond science and math Poindexters to touch every department, every student.
“This is not a space that is solely for the kid that has already identified himself as wanting to be an engineer. Because you know those kids exist,” Smith said. “All of our spaces are designed to let kids who aren’t really sure what they want to do explore lots of different STEM fields and lots of different avenues to figure out what they want to do with themselves, which direction they might want to go in. Because we can’t get away from technology at this point in our world. It’s very much a part of who we’ve become and kids need to realize it’s not just a tool for socializing.”
School administrators also are cognizant of traditionally underserved segments of the population when it comes to STEM fields.
“Yes, this is a STEM space and yes, we will be doing engineering, but it is also is much more than that,” Smith said. “It is a place where kids can come and create and think and make stuff, and to try to learn more at their own pace. And that’s supportive of all students – our female student population, our Hispanic population that tends to sometimes lag behind in the math and sciences.”
“When I look at my rosters I guess I wish there was a little more diversity with the male-female ratio, but I think once we have this first year under our belt we are going to see a huge influx of girls wanting to sign up and be a part of this process. That’s one of our goals, anyway.”
The second step in the Fab Lab process is the digital design space – essentially a roomful of computers running 3D design software for the novice (TinkerCAD) and the advanced student (AutoCAD). Smith calls TinkerCAD a very straightforward and simple program that teaches beginners the basics of moving and scaling objects in three-dimensional space.
“My 10-year-old daughter plays with TinkerCAD and Google SketchUp,” Smith said. “And because we are a Project Lead the Way district, which is a national program, we are very geared toward kids that want to be engineers, so we have to use [industry standard software] like AutoCAD for the more advanced students.”
The makerspace is the third and final stage in the three-tiered JHHS digital fabrication process. This room is the largest, housing workbenches and several CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines. The most notable instrument and crown jewel of any Fab Lab is the 3D printer.
3D printing, or “additive manufacturing” as it is sometimes called, is the process of manufacturing a solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. A variety of materials can be used depending on the particular printer. Lower-cost 3D printers like the MakerBot Replicator 2 that JHHS uses retail for around $2,200. They use a corn-based PLA (Polylactic acid) plastic. More expensive models range from $40,000 to $250,000 and can utilize metal, cobalt-chrome and titanium alloys.
Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp first demonstrated 3D printing in 1984. Two MIT students patented the process in 1995 and began selling 3D printers through a company called ZCorp.
Many readers may be familiar with Cody R. Wilson, though perhaps not by name. Wilson, a self-described crypto-anarchist, develops and publishes online several open source gun designs, dubbed “Wiki Weapons,” that are suitable for 3D printing. Wilson, 25, became an international sensation earlier this year when he published the plans for the Liberator, a functioning pistol that could be reproduced with a 3D printer. Soon after, Wired Magazine called Wilson one of “The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World.”
Smith outfitted the Fab Lab with three Replicator 2s. She said 3D printers can “print” in almost anything, including food.
“You can get 3D printers that print in chocolate or cheese,” Smith said, referring to a Choc Edge Choc Creator which retails for around $4,350. “What a fun connection for our culinary teacher to have a 3D printer that would print in chocolate. How cool would that be for her and her kids?”
The JHHS Fab Lab also is outfitted with a milling machine. A miller is detractive in nature, whittling away solid objects made of foam or wood, for instance, to a desired shape. The workspace also features a thermoforming machine called a vacuum former that shrink-wraps plastic molding to shape.
A 3D scanner is another essential piece of equipment for any Fab Lab. It scans a real-world object in three dimensions and transfers that data to a computer for design modeling. The JHHS Fab Lab also has two vinyl lasers, two laser engravers, and a vast selection of arts and craft materials and electronic parts.
Will it work?
The high school will offer six periods of Fab Lab instruction, taught by Smith and JHHS graduate Orion Bellorado. Smith said the Fab Lab’s inaugural semester offering will be an introductory class called “The Art and Science of Making.”
In addition to launching the Fab Lab, Smith soon will be asked to pay it forward as well. She will attend the upcoming School Improvement Conference with school principal Dr. Scott Crisp next month in Cheyenne. The two will present on the role of the Fab Lab in Jackson, after which Smith expects to be flooded with inquisitive phone calls.
“I will be more than happy to talk to anybody about it,” Smith said. “I mean, I certainly made plenty of phone calls last year to people who were in charge of these kinds of spaces in big cities, and they were more than accommodating. They would talk to me for hours on the phone. So I need to reciprocate that back when it happens, because I couldn’t have been able to do this myself without the knowledge from other people.”
Smith is a little worried that the new space will always be a work in progress, and rapidly-changing technology means the district will be in perpetual funding mode. Supporters can give through Old Bill’s.
“One of the things about this space is the equipment will become outdated eventually, and that’s something the community needs to be aware of,” Smith said. “It will look a little different in five years. It might look totally different in 10 years. But we are less concerned with the equipment than with what the kids are learning when they are in here. The application, collaboration, problem-solving, ability to think differently, and ability to learn how to make things – that’s going to look different as time goes by.”
Today begins a new chapter at JHHS. Many teachers, students and parents of students have been wondering about the school’s new Fab Lab and just how it will enhance the high school experience in Jackson.
“It’s going to be a fun year and a really good learning experience for everyone involved,” Smith said. “I expect it will continue to evolve year after year. I do get really excited thinking five years from now what the potential is for our students, because we will have kids by then that will be leaving this high school masters of this process and that’s exciting.”