The Bourn Lab at Castilleja School, which opened March 16, is the first fabrication lab built for children, part of Stanford’s FabLab@School network.
First school-based FabLab@School in nation launches in Palo Alto
For more than a century, innovation has been Stanford University's top export. Some of its greatest innovators have made a global impact without moving more than a few miles from the Farm. (Think Hewlett and Packard, Yang and Filo, Brin and Page.) Now, a young assistant professor in the university's School of Education is taking the process of innovation itself two blocks down Embarcadero Road.
The Bourn Idea Lab at Castilleja School, which had its official launch March 16, is a one-of-its-kind design and digital fabrication lab especially built for children, the first at a U.S. secondary school. As opposed to ordinary school robotics or "shop" labs, the Bourn Lab is equipped to teach a range of subjects from physics and engineering to art. It is the latest addition to a nascent network called FabLab@School, the brainchild of Stanford Asst. Prof. Paulo Blikstein.
In 2008, Blikstein came as a faculty member to Stanford with an unusual project: he wanted to build the first-ever digital fabrication lab at a school of education, and take the model to middle and high-schools. The idea quickly caught on. Blikstein is essentially building a whole new way to teach science and other disciplines from the ground up. The FabLab@School sites (there is one in Moscow, in partnership with Schlumberger's SEED Foundation, and one in Blikstein's lab on Stanford's campus, plus one under construction in Bangkok and in East Palo Alto) put cutting-edge technology for design and fabrication -- such as 3D printers and laser cutters -- into the hands of middle and high school students. Blikstein's core belief is that collaborative problem solving cannot be taught out of a book, and the way we design curricula is fundamentally broken. Rather, it's the process of building something out of nothing that will profoundly change the way students look at science and technology. In Moscow, the lab became an overnight success, attracting nearby schools and collecting prizes at the prestigious Russian Festival of Science after just three months.
With that goal in mind, Blikstein and his staff in the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford have spent three years developing research methods and instruments, low-cost tools, a curriculum and a rigorous teacher-preparation program. Over the past three months, teachers at Castilleja have received several days of training, and Blikstein's team will continue with more teacher support in the months ahead.
Blikstein's goal is to take school science back to a model based on projects and inquiry. "Over the years, science labs became places where invention and creativity go to die. There's no real discovery there," he said. "You just go in and follow a script. Put this item here, put that there and write down the result you observed. It's more like a cookbook lab. And kids know it's not real science so they disengage quickly and just go through the motions."
The explosion of interest in robotics was initially an encouraging sign that creativity was returning to science and engineering education. But Blikstein notes that in recent years the field has largely been ceded to an elite group of students, to the exclusion of everyone else. "Over the last ten years robotics became a competitive sport," said Blikstein. "Now, the competitive landscape is so high-stakes that if you want to compete you have to be a really high-end engineering type with a lot of resources. A lot of schools have robotics teams -- ten kids out of 500 -- who suck up enormous resources, and it's not very inclusive. It scares the other kids away. We need the high-end robotics but we also need to cater to the other students." The Castilleja lab is specifically designed to be a resource for the entire student body across a whole range of disciplines, much the way a school library is.
While Castilleja, a private all-girls school, will have the first standalone FabLab@School facility in the country, the first students to get regular access to these tools come from East Palo Alto Academy. That school's students have been working at Blikstein's lab on the Stanford campus for about two years. In the coming months, Castilleja will work collaboratively on teacher training with the East Palo Alto Academy and also support the establishment of a digital fabrication lab in East Palo Alto.
(For more information, watch Blikstein's TEDx talk on the FabLab@School project.)