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:]