Digital Fabrication for Education

About FabLab@School

What's a FabLab?

FabLab is a low-cost digital workshop equipped with laser-cutters, routers, 3D scanners, 3D milling machines, and programming tools, where you can "make almost anything." There are over 100 FabLabs around the world, open to local inventors, small businesses, and garage entrepreneurs. The FabLab concept was created by Prof. Neil Gershenfeld and Bakhtiar Mikhak at MIT. Despite the potential impact of FabLabs in education, they are mostly focused on adults, entrepreneurship, and product design.

What is FabLab@School?

FabLab@School, created in 2009 by Prof. Paulo Blikstein at Stanford University, is a growing network of educational digital fabrication labs that put cutting-edge technology for design and construction, such as 3D printers and laser cutters, into the hands of middle and high school students. TLTL researchers have spent the last years developing low-cost tools, assessments, a curriculum, and a rigorous teacher-preparation program. The labs are the proving ground for much of the research going on in TLTL.

While these days there are a few other fabrication labs and Makerspaces in school settings, FabLab@School was the first program designed from the ground up specifically to serve grades 6-12.

There are currently FL@S installations on the Stanford University campus, in Moscow, Russia, Bangkok, Thailand, and in Palo Alto, California. Additional installations are planned for East Palo Alto (CA), Denmark, Brazil, and Australia.

How did FabLab@School come about?

The intellectual roots of FabLab@School (and much of the other work within TLTL) extend back to the work of Seymour Papert and his collaborators at the MIT Media Lab. Papert, a pioneer in the field of educational technologies, developed Logo, a programming language designed for children and the LEGO robotics system. Papert's "constructionist" perspective (a belief that children learn most effectively when they build artifacts and share with peers) is at the heart of the FabLab@School program.

The original FabLab idea was conceived as a creative space for university students, and local inventors. The concept was transplanted successfully to community centers and entrepreneurial hothouses around the globe. Paulo Blikstein, who began researching digital fabrication in education in 2004 as part of his PhD. work, created the FabLab@School concept when he joined the Stanford faculty in 2008, and designed the first-ever digital fabrication lab at a School of Education.

How does FabLab@School differ from a traditional school science lab?

A traditional school science lab depends on a highly scripted instructional model. All students progress in linear fashion. The FabLab@School model relies on open-ended questions as a starting point, with no "correct" answer at the other end. In this hands-on environment, students chart their own course from idea to finished artifact, and no two students' journeys are exactly the same. While the traditional model emphasizes uniformity and predictability, FabLab@School emphasizes collaboration and creative problem-solving.

How does FabLab@School differ from a robotics lab?

We use some of the same tools as robotics labs, but our emphasis is on inclusion -- making the fabrication lab a resource for the entire student body. While the subjects are primarily STEM -- chemistry and physics to engineering and math -- any field of study that can be taught via the creation of artifacts can be enhanced by FabLab@School. Some of the most enthusiastic teachers who have taken our model to heart are in the humanities, from music and art to ancient history. While a robotics lab may often become a clubhouse for students who self-identify as engineering types, a FabLab@School is an inviting and accessible resource shared by all, much along the lines of the school library. In addition, the FabLab@School tools are much easier to use than traditional "shop" equipment, and allow students to create complex artifacts in much less time.

Why couldn't this be done in a traditional science classroom?

The layout of a traditional classroom isn't optimal for work that involves students roaming from station to station and forming ad hoc peer working groups. Just as sports has the gymnasium and music has the orchestra room, in order for innovation and scientific discovery to become an integral part of the school's culture, they need a dedicated space.

What's special about the FabLab@School project?

The project has seven main components:

  • A carefully-designed teacher preparation program, refined over the last few years, and tested in multiple countries and cultures. Also, we developed strategies for a full integration with school curricula.
  • A set of tens of activities designed for children together with teacher guides, allowing students to engage in cutting-edge scientific investigation and engineering projects.
  • Software tools for scientific modeling and simulation, and equipment for sensor-enabled scientific experiments in physics and chemistry.
  • Easy to use, age-appropriate robotics and sensing equipment.
  • A fully-developed research program, with custom-made impact measures and learning metrics especially designed for digital fabrication and project-based environments.
  • A special focus on education and on the connection with the disciplines (sciences, math, engineering)
  • Lower cost of implementation and ownership, intensive use of re-purposed and low-cost materials.


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