Creating and Connecting the Dots with Digital Fabrication

 Photo courtesy of Alethea Campbell

Photo courtesy of Alethea Campbell

In my 7th grade science class, we were asked to design a model, solar-powered car. Our class was studying energy conversion, and we were instructed to design a vehicle we could race against classmates. Unlike any of our other class projects, this project transpired over two different class periods: we explored the conversion of solar to mechanical energy within Science and designed the vehicles during Art. It was the first time an assignment shared curriculum with another class.

I don’t remember the result of the race, or if one even took place (Northeast Ohio isn’t exactly known for its sunshine). However, I do recall spending countless hours outside of both classes designing and tinkering with my model car. For the first time, I was exposed to the idea that learning could be differentiated. Learning through both a scientific and artistic lens became a creative outlet. It opened my eyes to the idea that science could be a messy, imaginative operation and that art could involve calculated decision-making processes.

 Photo courtesy of the Boston Celtics

Photo courtesy of the Boston Celtics

Today, a team of us at the Fab Foundation work on a pair of mobile fab labs called the Brilliant Career Lab (BCL). Funded by the GE Foundation, the BCL is a collection of interactive experiences designed to engage students and teachers using digital fabrication tools while providing technical skill development to bridge the gap between classroom and career. These “trailers” as we refer to them are roughly 28’ x 7.5’ x 7.5’ and hauled by a pick up truck. Of the three of us on this Boston-based team, our jobs are to make these imposing technical transports accessible to middle and high school students.

 Photo courtesy of Aidan Mullaney

Photo courtesy of Aidan Mullaney

 Photo courtesy of Aidan Mullaney

Photo courtesy of Aidan Mullaney

The use of digital fabrication tools in our work goes beyond blending Science and Math with English and Art. Our plan is to seamlessly integrate digital fabrication and career exploration into class’ and school’s already existing curriculum. We want educators to see how using these tools can be utilized effectively to enhance student’s understanding and relationship with the material. More importantly, we don’t want to leave without providing any framework for continuing this type of instruction. As one administrator put it, they weren’t going to allow a “drive-by” program into their school.

One way we meet this challenge is by tying digital fabrication skills directly to careers. Through job market research conducted by the GE Foundation, our labs can focus on a select set of future STEM careers that apply digital fabrication skills: Biomedical Engineer, Airplane Mechanic, Game Developer, Machinist, and Wearable Device Designer. The curriculum we curate highlights the tools utilized in these professions. By the end of the two-week visit, we have taught this curriculum to students and shared it with teachers.

 Photo courtesy of Brian Purvis

Photo courtesy of Brian Purvis

 Photo courtesy of Brian Purvis

Photo courtesy of Brian Purvis

As the BCL program scales, one of the ways we’re able share this information with more educators is online through the SCOPES website. This year, we have debuted a collection of digital fabrication lessons around the GE Brilliant Career Lab careers. While the mobile labs are only able to visit a handful of schools each year, these lessons serve as an extension of the lab’s capabilities. By participating in each lesson, students learn about a future STEM career, the software and hardware involved in these occupations, and (most importantly) they create objects of their design.

To date, our surveys indicate students have an increased understanding in core concepts and show positive growth in their attitudes towards STEM careers. The BCL joins a number of STEM programs and initiatives striving to grow the STEM pipeline and place additional STEM professionals in tomorrow’s workforce. Today, we’re most concerned with effectively integrating digital tools into the classroom and improving student perception of STEM.

 Photo courtesy of Aidan Mullaney

Photo courtesy of Aidan Mullaney

I would not be working in my current role if not for these types of interdisciplinary projects. My first job after college was an educator position at a science museum. Before my final interview, I was asked to prepare a project-based science curriculum. For my presentation, I brought with me the same cardstock and 9V DC motor powered car I made in 7th grade. Now, each time I leave a school, I wonder how many students will take their BCL designs with them to their first job interview.

Making the Most from Digital Fabrication for Learning

  Photo © Stan Rowin

Photo © Stan Rowin

Making a model of a cell is a classic biology lesson that is a constant in most classrooms. It’s a lesson that requires students to memorize the parts and functions of a cell. It was done years ago (and still is today) with construction paper, glue, paper clips, and various other art supplies. However, while the objective of the lesson is to also learn the function of the cell and its components, the static nature of the lesson and the material does not create activities for students to more deeply understand function and relationships among parts.

Using digital fabrication in place of traditional media to do the same static representation is obviously possible. However, we didn’t think that, as presented, the uses of digital fabrication added anything to the lesson. Function and interaction remain distant and unexplored. As Richard Feynman noted, knowing the names of things is not the same as knowing the things.

 Photo courtesy of Suzanne Miller-Moody

Photo courtesy of Suzanne Miller-Moody

Our group consisted of Adam Gorski and Ellie Salzbrenner of MC2 STEM High School (Cleveland) and Zach McCoy of STEM High School (Chattanooga). Rather than memorizing the names of parts of cells, and using a laser cutter to form their shapes, we wanted to look at how digital fabrication might truly make the most of learning about cells, their components, and their functions. We wanted to move from having students memorize information about ideas and phenomena, and facilitate a deeper understanding through understanding function, interaction, structure, and how these elements play out in reality. We believe that digital fabrication potentially enables deeper learning and a richer learning experience by facilitating students going beyond simple concepts (e.g. the names and shapes of cell components ) to a richer understanding of how cells function and how they can form more complex systems.

Therefore, we decided to take a different perspective for our investigation. We decided to focus on three questions:

  1. What are the more complex, more difficult, and harder to understand concepts inherent to the study of cells?

  2. How can digital fabrication help us understand these concepts in ways that other media do not?

  3. How can we make this a more active learning project where the activities help the student understand the more complex ideas?

That is, we wanted to focus on ideas, digital fabrication as a means to better understand the ideas, and creating a learning environment most conducive to learning the ideas in empowering ways.

Indeed, since the overall learning objectives of the topic focus primarily on function of the organelles, on mechanisms of movement, the role of the cell membrane to control what enters and leaves, what are the processes for this, how select cellular organelles work within a system, the effect of osmosis, the interaction between the skeletal and muscular systems, how the structure of DNA allow it to fulfill its function, how human body systems organized, and how negative and positive feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis.

It is clear the primary focus of the learning objectives are functional, interactive, and systemic. They explore mechanism and function in order to give a more complete understanding.

This is exactly the type of ideas and thinking that an approach using digital fabrication facilitate well beyond other media certainly beyond merely memorizing parts of cells in isolation. Rather than limiting the power of digital fabrication to using it to do things easily accomplished with typical materials, we wanted to create learning activities that accentuated how digital fabrication could facilitate the learning, particularly of the more complex, dynamic, interactive ideas and processes

However, given our time constraints for the exercise, we wanted to do something where we could have sufficient time to actually make something, where what we would design and fabricate would be indicative of how this subject area could develop. That is, while we had many ideas for using digital fabrication to strengthen the activity, we limited ourselves to something that could be accomplished quickly.

 Make a Nerve Cell Using LEDs. Photo courtesy The Exploratorium 

Make a Nerve Cell Using LEDs. Photo courtesy The Exploratorium 

Since a cell is the sum of its part and cannot function if any of these parts are missing, we compared a cell to a circuit. In order for a circuit to work, every piece must be connected and working as a unit. We designed a cell where each organelle acted as a node (with an LED). The students could do the design themselves, or, at the very least, must connect all of the pieces to demonstrate a functioning cell. We also imagined that student groups could program animations that could explain how they functioned.

If given sufficient time, students could create functional models of cells and systems. By embedding circuitry and computation into their designs, they could demonstrate interaction, flow, and function. Ideally, these demonstrations could function in real-time both with physical and online components.

This allows for a few different things not in the original lesson. Of course, it maintains digital fabrication, but greatly expands the original concept because it also includes programming, electronics, research, scientific writing, and a level of collaboration that was not originally present. This requires students to go beyond the lower-level depth of knowledge that involves reciting cell parts and functions. In the newer version of the activity, students must not only verbally regurgitate how parts and processes work, but also must build upon these ideas to create functional models.

Calling on higher order thinking skills that involve constructing and synthesizing concepts that go beyond biology and into the world of fabrication and physics. In addition, this revamped version of the lesson offers more pathways for students to grasp concepts that are difficult to comprehend when static, and brings them to life with the use of QR codes and animations. For instance, in the new lesson, students will not simply memorize that the mitochondria powers the cell, but will dive deeper into the complex processes that include electron transport and the citric acid cycle.

What is most important is that we found this to be an extremely rich area for further investigation through digital fabrication that can provide learning experiences of pedagogical value that other media do not provide.

[Original lesson:]

Animal Engineers - Experiencing Digital Fabrication and Beyond

By: Tony Donen, Ken Kranz, and Sherry Lassiter

This blog encapsulates the experiences of three educators and their reflections after implementing a digital fabrication unit titled “Animal Engineers”. The emotions, experiences and takeaways about digital fabrication are built from one reflection to the next. In all, the blog represents the full richness of a digital fabrication learning experience from multiple perspectives.

From Tony Donen:

December 17th… seemed like a great day to travel out of Chattanooga, Tennessee to Boston, Massachusetts to meet with a team of implementers and experts on k-12 digital fabrication education. But if you know anything about Chattanooga, you also know most flights go through Atlanta, Georgia first. Turns out, December 17th also happened to be the same day the Atlanta airport lost power. Needless to say, the next 24 hours took plenty of twists and turns before the Chattanooga educators, including me, were able to slog themselves into Boston.

Soon after we arrived, where I can honestly say that I was tired and somewhat cranky, the Fab Foundation Master Fabricator grouped all the varied educators into teams to work through different digital fabrication lessons constructed by educators from across the country.

Our team was comprised of Sherry Lassiter, President and CEO of the Fab Foundation (well rested on far right), Ken Kranz, Fab Lab instructor at STEM School Chattanooga (somewhat tired in the middle), and me, Tony Donen, Principal of STEM School Chattanooga (exhausted on far left).

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

But good news was on the horizon for me....

Turns out that there is a way to trick one’s mind and body into thinking you are not exhausted - it’s through interest and engagement. These two attributes rose to the forefront with me as we started into our team’s lesson - Animal Engineers. My wife and daughters would probably laugh at my interest in this lesson because they know I am not an animal lover. In fact, I am allergic to both cats and dogs. However, I was drawn immediately into this lesson for several reasons.

I love to create. In this lesson we were provided the opportunity to build a birdhouse. Not just any birdhouse, but our own design. Anytime I have the opportunity to create and be original, I get energized. Sitting and listening to someone lecture is not my style.

I am a tweaker. Animal Engineers provided the opportunity to think, build, tinker, and re-build. In fact, I am pretty sure our team would have gone for hours and hours if there wasn’t a time constraint put on us.

I am not an expert! If I had been handed this lesson and told to go, I would have hit roadblocks all over the place. From my lack of expertise in technical pieces of digital fabrication to my lack of animal knowledge, I could have floundered. But by working in a collaborative team which brought three of us together with widely varied skill sets, the project took off. It really provided me the opportunity to shine in areas that I already had confidence and learn in areas where my content was lacking.

Overall, the Animal Engineer lesson was well designed in transforming the experience from a sit, listen, talk framework into a make and do experience. We sketched out our ideas and designs, worked with digital fab tools in making our designs come to life, and even scavenged materials from throughout the lab to put together a first rough prototype. In the end I could have gone for hours longer. My exhaustion was completely transformed into engagement, and I appreciated how much this making experience transformed my mentality. It really confirmed to me how much experiences like this matter to our students.

From Ken Kranz:

Think, Make, Try! Our goal was to take an existing lesson from the SCOPES-DF website, and make small improvements, adaptations, or extensions to that lesson and demonstrate the use of a digital fabrication process by making a simple artifact that reflects the improvement. Sounds like fun! Oh...we only have one hour...we can still do this... we were encouraged to keep our initial ideas as simple and open as possible. As the designated “fabber”, I was asked to facilitate the fabrication of our prototype. Our group quickly reviewed the Animal Engineers lesson and brainstormed ideas for things we could make.  It was exhilarating to drop into a Fab lab and immediately feel at home. Laser cutter...check.  3D printer...check.  ShopBot...check.  Any electronic components we might use? Check. Soon we were off and running with wild ideas! But wait, we only have 50 minutes left? Yikes--time to focus! 

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

Our group quickly sketched a few ideas for a digitally fabricated bird house. Maybe it could be a hexagonal design with a sensor to detect the presence of a bird. That sensor could activate a light to signal the humans that a bird occupant had checked in.  

Time check...only 42 minutes to go! Recognizing that time was passing by quickly, it was time to focus on fabrication. Piece of cake, right?  Well, maybe not. We quickly decided the laser cutter would be the quickest way to digitally create our prototype, however, our colleagues (and competitors) had come to the same conclusion. Oh no! Resource contention! We also noted that each Fab lab has its unique quirks and tools. We were familiar with using a certain type of vector drawing software but it was not available. No problem, right?  Wrong! We struggled to perform what should have been a very simple task--creating a vector shape of our bird house. We even simplified the idea to a cube-based design. Thankfully, the Fab lab staff came to our rescue and assisted with the software aspect. The Fab lab was stocked with ample supplies of cardboard--an essential for digital fabrication! Soon enough, our design was taking form. We laser cut and assembled a simple cube model. We even used the vinyl cutter to apply a “waterproof” exterior coating. Not bad for a quick prototype!

In looking back on our experience, I reflected on the value of putting myself in the role of a student learner. Doing so always helps me relate to the challenges our students face and can be invaluable...and humbling. Like our students, I was was working with new people on an unfamiliar project. Getting organized and making sure we understood the expectations was critical. I had assumed I could quickly figure out software tools to create a design for the laser cutter. However, I found myself confounded with unfamiliar features, not unlike our students who are using our software tools for the first time. On the positive side, having readily available resources was reassuring. If we made a mistake, we could easily make another prototype. That’s the type of freedom we want our students to have. 

In conclusion, I found even a seasoned “fabber” like myself had a lot to learn about digital fabrication and how to design effective projects to help students become fabbers as well!

From Sherry Lassiter:

Picking up from Tony and Ken, I’m interested in how we take this wonderful, engaging activity and make it relevant and even more engaging for middle or high school students...or even adults like us! 

My last career was as a television producer for educational TV, both public and commercial.  And one of my last TV gigs was as series producer for a show called All Bird TV, a documentary series funded by The Learning Channel, and about (as you can imagine) birds!  The show was hosted by Ken Dial, a biology professor at the University of Montana and affiliated with the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He was a wild, adventurous man, afraid of nothing and totally into birds. He has interesting new theories about bird evolution and flight. He taught me most of what I know and love about birds. 

  Ken Dial (Google image), Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest, Sociable Weaver nests (BBC Earth, 2015,Retrieved 04/16/2018 from:

Ken Dial (Google image), Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest, Sociable Weaver nests (BBC Earth, 2015,Retrieved 04/16/2018 from:


What I learned from Dial is that birds are amongst the best engineers in the world.  From the lichen covered cups of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), to the social network nests of the Sociable Weaver (Philetairus socius), to the layered saliva nests of the Edible-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus), the size, shape and architecture of each is unique, yet all have survival of the species at heart. 

Of course I have my own personal favorite bird engineer, the Vogelkop Bower Bird. The male is both engineer and artist.  He builds a house/nest as part of his courtship for a mate, which is in fact a species survival issue. Now this particular bird nest strategy may or may not be appropriate for 3rd to 5th graders, but I’ll bet you that middle and high schoolers will get a kick out of it.


In the original animal engineer lesson students think about the materials and tools one could use to build a nest, they see animal-designed nests as well as human-designed nests and then they prototype a nest that has similar protective characteristics to those of a bird-designed nest.  So how do we advance and deepen the learning and engagement here for older students, through digital fabrication?  Digital fabrication gives us the opportunity to make precision objects, repeatably and reliably. It also allows us to create logical, functional systems, to sense, measure and modify the environment, to collect data and analyze that data in ways that enable us to model and make predictions about the world around us.  

First I’d start with the Engineering Design Process. Engineering design is about defining the problem, designing a solution, prototyping a solution, testing it,  reflecting on what does and doesn’t work  and redefining or iterating. There are a million versions of the circular engineering design process out there, but below are two frameworks… one for advanced students, and my favorite spiral for lifelong learners from MIT’s Lifelong Learning Group. 

   All I Really Need to Know     (About Creative Thinking) I    Learned   (By Studying How Children Learn)    in Kindergarten*  , M.Resnick, MIT Media Lab handout, Pg. 2, Retrieved 04-16-2018 from:

All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I  Learned (By Studying How Children Learn)  in Kindergarten* , M.Resnick, MIT Media Lab handout, Pg. 2, Retrieved 04-16-2018 from:

But engineering design isn’t just about a problem and a solution, it’s really about the end user and relates very much to Human-Centered Design. The graphic below shows how the human experience needs to be explored thoroughly before we begin the physical design process. 

 The art and science of Human-Centered Design, 2015, Mario Sakata. Retrieved 04-16-2018 from:

The art and science of Human-Centered Design, 2015, Mario Sakata. Retrieved 04-16-2018 from:


In this case we’re not engineering for humans, rather for animals, yet their environmental and biological needs and constraints need to be carefully considered to make a good, protected nest. As each species is unique and has different needs and constraints, so each species needs to be observed separately to understand and design for its survival. The first step in this deeper engagement is to design for one particular species of bird and through understanding the biological and physical needs and constraints of that species we can begin to physically design the structure and our approach. 

Next we want to prototype and build our physical birdhouse. If we are to share our bird house design with others around the world, it greatly helps if we use digital fabrication. That way all the other students or amateur birders around the world can copy exactly our design.  And if we feel we want to manufacture our birdhouses for others, we could do so repeatably and reliably by sharing our documentation and our design files online.  We would use a digital design program like CorelDRAW, SketchUp, SolidWorks or Autodesk’s Fusion 360 to design the physical infrastructure.   For extra credit (and green footprint points) we’d make the house a press-fit structure, meaning that the parts pressure fit together at the joints, no nails or glue required. This requires precision in the design and fabrication such that the parts have a snug fit and won’t fall apart in bad weather.   Some research related to materials, size of entrance, size of cavity, height of nest placement, place of nest placement is very relevant to this design and fabrication process. 

Below is a simple, generic birdhouse from  You can find many of these files and instructions online, open source and free of charge. Maybe start with one of these, then redesign based on your particular bird species. This structure would likely be fabricated in wood using a laser cutter or large wood router.

Blog Pic 6.jpg

The actual laser file for cutting as well as instructions for this design can be found here:

Next, for our more advanced birdhouse exercise, we not only design and build the physical nest/house, but also measure and monitor what is going on inside the nest, so that we can better understand the needs of the chicks as they incubate, grow and fledge. We learn a lot about the particular species we follow and about birds in general from this exercise, but we also contribute to global knowledge about this species and the life cycle of birds in the wild (a.k.a. documentation for a meaningful cause).  While there is a wealth of knowledge in the world about birds, there is so much more to learn about the many species and how to best preserve the environments that support them-- which is why Ornithology is such an interesting and important study.

Digital fabrication opens up opportunities to teach integrated, interdisciplinary STEM here by enabling students to create sensor nets, and data collection capabilities that are embedded in our bird house. And there is a plethora of other learning opportunities around how students analyze and interpret that data for improvement, modeling and prediction of bird biology and behavior.  Digital fabrication allows for designing and building the physical structure (which could be digitally designed and fabricated or not) and for the measurement/tracking/analysis (which is more essentially anchored in the digital world).

To design the measuring and monitoring systems that we will use to track the health and growth of the chicks, we might consider temperature sensors for measuring the temperature of eggs incubating, and for chicks’ growth after hatching. We might also consider weight sensors to measure the chicks’ rate of growth. We might consider light sensors to record when adults enter and exit the nest and how long they stay inside-- to understand feeding and incubation behavior-- and of course to know when the chicks have fledged.   Cameras and audio equipment, like GoPros can help with some of this but they cost a few hundred dollars, whereas your own design and fabricated sensor systems cost a few dollars each to make from scratch. 

Here is an example from the Fab Academy of a design for a temperature sensor and how to create the temperature tracking application on your computer. 

Blog Pic 7.jpg


Once these basics are in place, we have to figure out how to record the data, remotely, for later analysis.  I leave it to your imagination, but suffice it to say that creating algorithms and your own application for tracking is a terrific opportunity to learn about programming and mathematics. Better yet, repurpose an already existing application or program for recording the data-- which can also be a terrific educational experience.  But be prepared!  The students who are super engaged will often go for the do-it-yourself approach - which can be challenging to those of us who know very little about this kind of programming and app development.  Find online resources to help guide you and your students.


All of the files for designing, fabricating and programming your temperature sensor can be found at the Fab Academy website, under input sensing devices. This page includes designs and programs for temperature, sound, light, and many more input devices:

From the data collected, your students can then analyze, model and predict patterns of behavior:  how long incubation takes from egg to chick, how long from chick to fledge, how often feeding happens, how much sleep versus wake time, etc.  The directions are endless, fascinating and fun. 

Last but not least, documentation of and reflections on the learning and making process is super important not only for student learning, but for others to follow.  As noted above, this information may be important to others around the world, whether scientists, amateur birders or other students.  So a student’s documentation in this case may well be relevant beyond school. 

The birdhouse is a perfect example of what Seymour Papert (building upon the ideas of D. W. Winnicott) described as a transitional object (See: Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, second edition, S. Papert,  Basic Books, 1993) and  Sherry Turkle (building upon the ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss)  describes as an object to think and learn with (See:  Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, S. Turkle, MIT Press, 2007). The birdhouse provides a pathway to connect abstract knowledge with sensory knowledge and thereby bring deep ideas and concepts into the mind. (S. Papert, Preface, pg. XX)  For Papert, gears in the transmissions of automobiles helped him learn deep mathematical concepts. He was passionate about gears, he fell in love with gears.  As he notes in the preface to Mindstorms  “It is this double relationship-- both abstract and sensory-- that gives the gear the power to carry powerful mathematics into the mind.” (S. Papert, Preface, pg. XX)  It was a personal passion that drove the learning process with gears for him.  Digital fabrication presents exactly this opportunity, for learners young and old to pursue something that they are interested in or passionate about, to connect the physical and conceptual, the abstract and the sensory, and to learn deeply.  The power of learning through creating your own learning objects, your own learning tools, your own learning environment cannot be underestimated. This is “Constructionism” and it is an approach we highly recommend throughout the Fab Lab network.

Pinball Wizard: Ramping Up The Study of Energy

By: Latosha Glass, Sarah Wallace, and Sue Williamson


In December of 2017 the SCOPES-DF team met in Boston, MA and gave its teacher-members a long awaited opportunity to meet, learn and make.  Teachers from MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio and STEM School Chattanooga in Tennessee spent three days getting to know each other, learning about best practices and challenging each other to push our thinking around what FAB looks like in our schools and how we can help grow the SCOPES-DF community. 


Teachers, administrators and SCOPES-DF team members worked in small teams to analyze a lesson and think about how it could be ‘remixed’.  Our team consisted of LaTosha Glass, Assistant Principal at MC2 High School, Sue Williamson, Math Teacher at STEM CHATT and Sarah Prendergast Wallace, Mobile Fab Lab Coordinator at MC2.   This group was an excellent mix of pedagogical styles and comfort level with all things Fab.

Our group examined the Pinball Machine lesson, which can be seen in its original format here.  Our group was excited by the possibility of seeing what students were capable of making with this classic toy and were left thinking about timing, appropriate tool usage, how to incorporate multidisciplinary teaching and differentiation.

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

Let’s begin by thinking a little about differentiation.  By definition, differentiation is the act of changing or altering something. In teacher terms we know this to mean changing a lesson or part of a lesson to better fit the needs of specific groups of students.   In a Math class this might mean making 3 different versions of the same worksheet to fit lower, middle and higher ability students, or in English, assigning different books over the same content for different levels of readers.  When thinking about FAB projects we got to thinking about two important levels of differentiation. The first is more of the traditional sense- how can these lessons be differentiated for students with different ability levels, both with FAB skills and content-specific skills. Of course, a math teacher can think about how to differentiate the math skills or the social studies teacher for the social studies skills, but what about FAB?   How can we differentiate a lesson to help students who may be struggling with the ability to use the design process, thinking creatively or use a machine properly? This is a challenge. Our group spoke about the importance of scaffolding. Differentiation in the traditional sense might not be feasible with an engineering project, but scaffolding certainly is within the project and within the course.

This leads us to the second type of differentiation when it comes to FAB projects- differentiation for the teacher.  As teachers, we spend hours of our time making sure each lesson is crafted to fit the needs of each of our students, but the first step in that is making sure we find a lesson that fits our needs!  Finding a lesson that not only fits our individual style of teaching, but also meets the mission of the school, is accessible for our students, and is at the proper technology level, can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. This is why so many teachers spend all of their time reinventing the wheel by creating lessons from scratch.  With this in mind our group thought about how we can differentiate the SCOPES-DF lessons for teachers who are expert FABBERS or are just beginning the journey with digi-fab in the classroom. We struggled with how to make a lesson that clearly uses the laser machine on an ‘intro’ lesson for teachers who are not comfortable with that technology, instead we  looked through the Educator Experience levels and found lessons that would be more appropriate for less experienced teachers.

When thinking about a FAB lesson, or any lesson for that matter, timing is crucial.   We have all taught lessons that looked great on paper and yet our students breezed through the content and we are left with twenty minutes at the end of class  having an impromptu discussion or throwing together some sort of challenge problem. Or worse, when we have alotted four class periods for a unit or project and after day two we know that the students will never be done on time and we will have to re-evaluate our course planning document.  


The timing for the initial lesson was set for 2 hours.  Going through the lesson initially our group struggled with that short of a timeline. We felt that maybe a week (5 class hours) or even more would be a more appropriate time schedule. This brought us back to how we can differentiate in a FAB classroom and the idea of scaffolding.   While we do not think any teacher can walk into any classroom and have students complete this lesson from start to finish in two hours, we are sure that with proper scaffolding over the course of a quarter or a semester that eventually students would be able to complete this work in two class periods.  Many elementary school teachers often talk about the importance of ‘training’ their students with classroom procedures and common methods for problem solving or writing. We think that this sort of strict training is necessary in FAB classrooms. Students need to learn how to use the design process, think creatively and most importantly, learn the proper and safe way to operate the machines.


The short timing of the original lesson also did not leave room for iteration on their designs.   The design process is such a large part of engineering,  it would be interesting for students to  test their flippers and launchers, redesign and fabricate to improve performance. The ability to test multiple iterations of a design reinforces the engineer design process and  would give students the chance to refine their product.


Our group also spent significant time discussing appropriate tool usage in the Fab Lab. Each digital fabrication machine can be used for different types of projects and it’s important for FAB instructors to use the appropriate tool for each project.  With this in mind, along with the two hour time window, we thought that having students design the main parts of their pinball machine with a CAD software and laser cut out the pieces was not the best use of time. Instead, we thought students could plan out and cut out their cardboard pieces using a box cutter and then incorporate digital fabrication by 3D designing obstacles for their pinball machine to be printed out or to create side decorations for their game that could be created using the vinyl cutter.

We talked a lot about how to incorporate more content into this lesson.  Focusing on a multidisciplinary approach we thought that a teacher, no matter their licensure, could touch on multiple subjects and topics including the history of pinball, the design and artistry of the machines, and the math and physics of an inclined plane. The inclined plane of the pinball machine is the playing field.  The lesson currently focuses on the varying speed of the ball as it descends to the bottom of the field. An additional opportunity could include integrating Algebra with a discussion of slope as it relates to the plane. Students could calculate varying slopes, test them and determine what they consider to be the best slope to ensure optimal game play. Pinball is frustrating and less fun if it’s difficult to keep the ball in the field.  A possible extension would be to have students design and fabricate the deflectors that help keep the ball from going out of game play. Deflectors, which are positioned to the left and right of the flippers act to redirect balls from taking a straight path from the top of the playing field to the ball catchers. Deflectors are typically right triangles which could provide an opportunity to incorporate a discussion of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Sarah Tosha Sue.jpg

Finally, we spoke about extensions for the lesson.  The MC2 teachers were thinking more in terms of a quarter long, ten week project, and thus thought about different ways to incorporate other FAB machines, disciplines and content. Lights and sounds are integral to a pinball machine to make the game more entertaining not only for the players, but those who are watching. To support the study of electrical circuits, it would be interesting for students to create a circuit for their game. This could be accomplished using an Arduino or other available materials. We also thought that while a cardboard prototype could be created using a box cutter and hot glue, students could then iterate on their designs and create a small wooden version using the laser and possibly a larger scale of their designs using the shopbot.


Overall, we love the idea of having students connect engineering, art, math, and physics to create their own pinball machine and would love to see what students could come up with! We feel that this could lead to a wonderful Pinball Competition amongst high school students around the country!  The opportunity for students to present their designs to real pinball machine designers would add a value experience to the project as well as give students the opportunity to present and feel proud of their work.

Our Pinball Remix may have turned a one day challenge into a multi-week experience for students, but our team thought of this as an opportunity and not a challenge. How much stronger are our lessons when they persist? How much more do we learn when we dig deeper? Ultimately, we are not just adding digital fabrication to lessons, but rather, we are creating opportunities to take our students on deep and purposeful journeys!

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

Catapulting Into Digital Fabrication



2018 is the year that I have challenged myself to incorporate digital fabrication in my classroom units of study. I have walked past the Fab Lab in my school for the past three years, peeking in the door, continually amazed by the exceptional and creative work being produced by students. I have been even more impressed by the enthusiasm of our students. I observed those who sat silently in my Algebra 1 or Geometry class come alive in a hands-on work space, innovating and using skills I imagined they had but couldn’t tap into. Previously, a professional development opportunity gave me a cursory preview of digital fab tools. However, I was reluctant to try out all that digital fabrication has to offer until now.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a central focus at STEM School Chattanooga, so I have cross-curricular support and input from my team of teachers. Last year, our students were supported in their study of quadratic functions and Newton’s Laws by building trebuchets or catapults. They had a great time and built some interesting devices. However, as teachers, we wondered how deeply they understood the math and physics associated with their designs. This year, the goal is to teach students to use digital fabrication to better illustrate the engineering design process that allows for multiple iterations in prototyping. Access to design software, a laser cutter, and a 3D carving machine or "Carvey" enables our students to make adjustments to their launching device with better precision. It gives them better insight into the effect of the math and physics used in determining the trajectory of their launched object. This could be accomplished as a project in either a math or science class.

As a part of the SCOPES-DF cohort, not only am I tasked with incorporating digital fabrication in my own classes, but I'm also brainstorming ways to make it more accessible for all classroom teachers. In this regard, I have tried to identify the barriers that were holding me back and what I could do to overcome them. My biggest concerns were not personally knowing how to use all of the fabrication tools and which would be most useful for each of my project ideas. I teach 9th graders who mostly have not used the technology either, so how could I juggle teaching course material while providing them the needed time to learn how to use the tools?  Also, I was uncertain of how much time is necessary for successful implementation and how to balance that with the need to address all of my course standards.

Rather than just jumping into the project with 80 students, I chose six who had shown an interest in the fab lab and asked them to complete each step of the lesson, from learning to use design software to building a final product with a CNC ShopBot.  The benefit to using a small group was twofold; I could troubleshoot problems I probably wouldn’t have considered, and I had a group of experts who could provide technical assistance to their classmates. As we begin this project, I have included some reflections from my student experts. Like them, I can’t wait to watch this project evolve!

Lili and Eron

First, we started off by using Tinkercad, an online 3D modeling software that helps you make a digital model of the object you are trying to make. After a few attempts at creating an adequate model, we finally had one that would suffice. We built the side supports using two triangles. We created these using the Carvey with a strong cardboard type material. We used a straw to connect the two sides together. Also, we laser cut an acrylic stick for the payload to hang from. Our prototype was almost finished, the only part we did not complete was attaching the weights and the sling.

Nelly and  Eron

When we were assigned the task we got a piece of paper so we could write down our ideas and sketch out a tiny model. During the thought process we wanted to include as many variables as possible so that we could make it more precise. After that we collected materials to build the catapult. The tools we used were the laser cutter, table saw, and drill. The materials we used were wood, acrylic, a spring and a string. We  thought it was actually fun although we did run into a couple of problems (like not finishing), but overall it was a good experience. 

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Rachel and Lili

After being assigned to make the final product, Rachel and I decided to build a trebuchet based on our prototype. We went back to Tinkercad and improved our prototype. Then, we ran into the problem that we could not transfer our design in Tinkercad as an SVG to the laser cutter, so we had to bring the file over to Inkscape, another 3D modeling software, and then import them to the laser cutter. After transferring our model to the laser cutter, we cut out all of our pieces and glued them together. Since we had our base done we moved on to the sling. Our sling was made of duct tape and was attached to our base with string. Once finished with the sling, we added washers to the opposite side of the sling. When done with the trebuchet, we put in the ping pong ball and tested it out. Looking back on this and seeing what we did, we agree that we should continue to work on a better sling, but the overall end product was effective and functional. 


Andrew and Alec

Initially, when we were assigned to build either a catapult or a trebuchet, we discussed what would be best. We decided to make a semi-detailed design on Notability. Then, we spent time finding resources, like wood and PVC, that best fit our design. We cut some wood but ran into problems with the material. Some of the wood we used kept splitting where we drilled holes. Also, we had to braid string so that it would be able to withstand a spring. Reflecting on our challenges, there were better ways of accomplishing some parts of our catapult. For example, we could have positioned our spring mechanism better, allowing it to work more effectively. In the given time and the issues encountered along the way, our end model was able to fire a ping pong ball about 10 feet. We had an exceptional experience and hope to have an opportunity like this again!

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'Wrinkling Time' Through ELA, Geometry & Digital Fab

By Nettrice Gaskins, Kimberly Stanley and Zachary Wenz

 Image of Pythagoras and tesseracts remixed using Deep Dream Generator.

Image of Pythagoras and tesseracts remixed using Deep Dream Generator.


During the 2017 SCOPES-DF Cohort Launch in Waltham, MA, participants were tasked with taking an existing lesson from the SCOPES-DF website, and making small improvements, adaptations, or extensions to that lesson and demonstrating the use of a digital fabrication process by making a simple artifact that reflects the improvement. Our team consisted of a SCOPES-DF team member Nettrice Gaskins, Kimberly Stanley, English teacher at STEM High School in Chattanooga, TN, and Zachary Wenz, Math teacher at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, OH. We were assigned the GeoConstructix lesson plan from the website.

  Photo © Stan Rowin

Photo © Stan Rowin

A Wrinkle in Time: STEM & Digital Fabrication in Popular Culture kicked off our discussion about the connections between English Language Arts, or ELA, mathematics and digital fabrication. In summary, the overarching theme "wrinkling time” can be explored through geometry and tensegrity, which is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension. Additionally, the main concept of time portals deals with vectors, which are geometric shapes that have both a magnitude and a direction. With vectors we were able to define operations such as addition, subtraction, and multiplication by scalars. This was the entry point for our discussion about how to remix GeoConstructix, a lesson dealing with similar concepts as tensegrity.

 Student exploring tensegrity and a tesseract (time portal) in math class at Boston Arts Academy. Photo courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins.

Student exploring tensegrity and a tesseract (time portal) in math class at Boston Arts Academy. Photo courtesy of Nettrice Gaskins.

GeoConstructix adapts digital fabrication concepts by focusing on the inter-relationship between geometry and computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) techniques. The lesson’s scaffolding structure allows students to work with a series of successive methods-based exercises that rely on both digital modeling and prototypes. By remixing this lesson, the team opened up more possibilities for exploration of general themes and concepts.

What is a “remix”?

Remix culture allows and encourages derivative works by combining or editing existing materials to produce a new creative work or product. The best examples of this kind of creative work are often marked by a reframing of the original narrative, and so produce a fresh perspective on both the source material and the context in which it first existed. Remixing, as a cultural practice has origins in hip hop through DJing or the live rearranging of pre-recorded music material to new compositions, and sampling or taking a portion of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song.

 Drawing a Sierpinski Triangle with Scratch.

Drawing a Sierpinski Triangle with Scratch.

MIT Media Lab’s Scratch programming platform let users remix blocks of code to create their own interactive stories, games and animations. Scratching is a technique used by DJs to remix music and produce different sound effects by manipulating vinyl records on a turntable. Scratch programming takes its name from this technique, as it lets users mix together different media in creative ways. We can use methods such as remixing, sampling, and scratching when developing lessons across academic subjects.

Using the novel "A Wrinkle in Time" and other books is a great way to connect literature to STEM subjects and digital fabrication. By reading stories or books we can identify themes that cross over into other areas. "A Wrinkle in Time" provides a base for creating innovative digital fabrication projects. The next steps include remixing relevant concepts and themes using vector shapes, vector editing software and laser cutting.

Remixing GeoConstructix: A Beginning

Kimberly Stanley (STEM CHAT) had new ideas for English/ELA. As someone who has been trying to implement Digital Fabrication into her classroom, this lesson really helped her see how this can happen without causing someone a tremendous amount of stress! Not only did she see the connection with "A Wrinkle in Time", she also saw this as an opportunity to utilize this same lesson with almost any novel/short story and the artifact could represent a time machine or portal to another world. Her students could then design their artifact to represent the time period or world they would be entering.  Kimberly also saw multiple writing opportunities for the students as they collaborated with others to complete this project.

  Photos © Stan Rowin

Photos © Stan Rowin

Zachary Wenz (MC2), made some connections to what he is teaching, specifically using right triangles and trigonometry (Geometry). In the design of time portals students could prove theorems about triangles to including exploring how a line parallel to one side of a triangle divides the other two proportionally, and conversely; the Pythagorean Theorem proves the use of triangle similarity.

 Students can use the properties of similarity transformations to establish the criterion for two triangles to be similar.

Students can use the properties of similarity transformations to establish the criterion for two triangles to be similar.

By the end of the GeoConstructix lesson, students will have learned the fundamentals of geometry and fabrication techniques with increasing levels of complexity. Students will use properties of similarity transformations and solve theorems and work out equations related to vector shapes such as triangles. In addition to geometric principles, we discussed tensegrity, specifically as a way to compress and expand a triangle or fractal-based structure to illustrate "wrinkling time."

 Students can solve theorems and work out equations related to triangles.

Students can solve theorems and work out equations related to triangles.

 Creating triangles using vector editing software.

Creating triangles using vector editing software.

Based on Zach’s suggestions our group created dozens of right and equilateral triangles using a vector graphics software with the aim of laser cutting them to create a fractal-based time portal. Vector programs such as Inkscape or Illustrator allows users to compose and edit vector graphics images and save them in one of many vector graphics formats, such as EPS, PDF, WMF, SVG, or VML.

Laser Cutting the Vector Shapes

Once the right and equilateral triangles were drawn in Illustrator, we used the correct specifications to prepare the file for laser cutting (ex. stroke/line .001 thickness). A typical commercial laser for cutting materials involves a control system (software) to generate the pattern to be cut from the material. In our case, we used a cardboard sheet. The focused laser beam is directed at the cardboard, which then burns away the lines, leaving straight edges.

  Photos © Stan Rowin .

Photos © Stan Rowin

Wrinkling Time in Real Time

Madeline L’Engle, author of “A Wrinkle in Time,” studied Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the book, L’Engle gives readers a peak at time travel without the mind-boggling concepts of advanced math. The 2018 film will likely give teachers and students new ideas for exploration. In addition to reading the book, or watching the film teachers can use GeoConstructix. Further, to understand "wrinkling time" teachers can instruct students to use their time portals to imagine the present at one end and the future at the other. By compressing or pressing down the structure the present touches the future creating a fifth dimension, or a tesseract, as it is referred to in L’Engle's book, as a wrinkle in time in real time.

 Fractal-based time portal made up of triangles

Fractal-based time portal made up of triangles

To summarize, GeoConstructix can be used to build geometric paper or cardboard time portals. As we explored in our group. this project can be used as a tool to help students read and learn the fundamentals of geometry and science. Students can build on this project to explore more esoteric concepts such as tensegrity and time travel. Although our team ran out of time before we could construct our own fractal-based time portal we did talk about ways in which students might construct one using these cross-cutting concepts. 

Behind The Mask: A Community Practice in Action

I sat at the back of the SolidWorks 3D Experience Lab in Waltham, Massachusetts and watched as an oversized laser cutter engraved snowflakes into a thin sheet of metal. Flames ignited as a tiny laser beam cut its way into the molten metal that was flat on the grid. Next to this, I sat with my group. We struggled with the small Epilog laser cutter that was a quarter of the size, fighting with the right measurements to be able to cut a flattened cube into a thick piece of card stock. SCOPES-DF Master Fabricator, Daniel Smithwick, and SCOPES-DF consultant educator, Melvin LaPrade sat to my left. Melvin, absorbing the process, and Dan, tinkering with the laser settings, understanding what all master fabricators know – every machine is different and has a mind of its own. Just like students, we had to find an entry point to connect as a group before we could begin working together.

A Wrinkle in Time: STEM & Digital Fabrication in Popular Culture

“A Wrinkle in Time” is an upcoming American science fantasy adventure film directed by Ava DuVernay from a screenplay written by Jennifer Lee, and based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle. Several concepts from the book and film connect to STEM subjects, even digital fabrication practices.