About FabLearn Labs

What are FabLearn Labs?

FabLearn Labs (formerly known as FabLab@School) are 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 six years developing low-cost tools, 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 in school settings, FabLearn Labs was the first program designed from the ground up specifically to serve grades 6-12.

There are currently FabLearn Lab installations on the Stanford University campus (California), in Moscow (Russia), Bangkok (Thailand), Palo Alto (California), Barcelona (Spain), Melbourne (Australia), Guadalajara (Mexico), and Aarhus (Denmark). Additional installations are planned for East Palo Alto (California), Brazil, Finland, and Poland in 2016.

How did FabLearn Labs come about?

The intellectual roots of FabLearn Labs (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 FabLearn Labs program.

The original FabLab was conceived in the Media Lab at MIT by Neil Gershenfeld (with collaboration of Bakhtiar Mitkak) as a creative space for university students. In five years the concept was transplanted successfully to community centers and entrepreneurial hothouses around the globe. FabCentral, a Web site by Gershenfeld's Center For Bits and Atoms, continues to be the hub for the worldwide FabLab network.

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 FabLearn Lab 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 FabLearn Lab 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, FabLearn Labs emphasize collaboration and creative problem-solving.

How do FabLearn Labs 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 FabLearn Labs. 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 FabLearn Lab is an inviting and accessible resource shared by all, much along the lines of the school library. In addition, the FabLearn Labs 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.