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.