Bringing the tools and concepts of digital fabrication to students and educators, and leveraging the resulting constructive and collaborative design context to provide alternative, active-engagement, learning opportunities.

A digital fabrication ‘space’ can be a powerful, even revolutionary, educational platform, but it requires more than just a machine introduced to the classroom. Of course, hardware will be necessary: digital fabrication devices like 3D Printers, along with computers appropriate to fabrication and some collection of software enabling designs to be captured, created, modified and output, will be required. But, electronics by themselves are not enough. At the core of any digital-fabrication learning-space is a student-centric, intrinsically-collaborative model of teaching, learning, and social engagement.

Note: Additional specific requirements must be met for such a space to qualify as a Fab Lab, or to host a Fab Academy (details below).

The larger picture of that model emerges when we consider the social-structural dynamics and educational benefits associated

Active Learning: Active involvement in the learning process, and in the direction the learning will take, makes each student the driving force behind his/her educational progression, nurturing a sense of autonomy, purpose, and responsibility. Moreover, digital design and fabrication activities directly and unavoidably engage the student in complex real-world problem-solving, requiring critical, reflective analysis, synthesized with past experience, at every step.

All of this propels students to improve learning outcomes in line with “deeper learning” measures, and to acquire a greater general facility with complex systems. As an exemplar of design-based learning, it has been demonstrated to raise outcomes for both higher-achieving and lower-achieving students, while having positive effects on motivation and sense of ownership over work product for both (see Hmelo, Holton & Kolodner, 2000. “Designing to Learn About Complex Systems”).

Shared Pedagogy: Everyone is Teacher and Student: A digital maker space is inherently project driven and collaborative, and does not naturally support the traditional dichotomy of teacher-student. Instead, teachers become a part of the learning landscape, sharing knowledge, experimenting and failing on the pathway to successful fabrication, collaborating in support of others’ projects and experiments; and in doing all of that they model precisely the involvement expected of any student. Thus, the teachers and the students ultimately join together in a shared exercise of educational bootstrapping.

Experimentation and Scientific Method: Abstract ideas don’t always translate as expected when embodied physically, and so the failure of expectations when a design is manufactured naturally leads to further analysis, revisions of hypotheses, and design modifications, until another attempt at fabrication proves or disproves the value of the revisions, and this continues until success is achieved. With each iteration, the scientific method is internalized, as hands-on practice (inducing ‘deep learning’) rather than mere abstract rule memorization.

STEM and STEAM: Such scientific habits, and a feel for the process of discovery, are accompanied by increasingly sophisticated engineering skills, subtle technical understandings of materials, an awareness of design principles and even an appreciation of ergonomics and design aesthetics. This makes digital fabrication spaces the perfect hands-on platform for STEM (or STEAM) training, preparing students for central roles in the future-technology economy.

Collaboration as Fundamental: Also essential in the increasingly distributed global work world, is the ability to hand off elements in collective projects, to coordinate, share effort, lead and support social networks of contributors. All of this means that the ‘soft skills’ of social collaboration will be central to the future work lives of students today. At every stage of design and fabrication, the ‘shared learning’ practices of a Fab Lab, or similar space, encourage the sharing of ideas and reinforce the habits of collaboration.

Social-Responsibility and Inclusion: This educational model, focused as it is on leveraging ideas wherever they might be, motivates inclusion of everyone: all ages, gender, race, physical ability, or socio-economic background. Everyone willing to contribute can produce value in this space, and thus, social inclusivity and equality emerge as functionally valuable principles. Combine those principles with the possibility of bringing diverse people’s together, and powerful social benefits emerge. Imagine the collaborations between adult, or even elderly engineers, and enthusiastic primary and secondary school students: such collaboration naturally elevates the social nurturing and mentoring attitudes from older students towards the very young, while challenging the conventional assumptions of the traditionally trained. Moreover, the desire to learn from those with past accomplishments naturally inculcates in all a respect for the wisdom of experience, whoever’s it may be. Such social dynamics differ markedly from the primarily competitive forms common in peer-group-only contexts.

“Play” not Memorization and Testing: Gamification is a trend of some value, but ‘creative play’ can be as motivating as any structured game. The pure joy of exploring physical possibilities in a creative, expressive, medium is obvious in the passionate following of virtual constructive spaces, like Minecraft. About a million people (mostly children) are ‘playing’ it at any moment, with more than 255,000 new buyers every day. Imagine now that same joy channeled into skills actually valuable in the work world, producing real-world creations, and all of this accompanied by direct, face to face, social engagement and shared accomplishments. The joy of learning, along with the social and technological skills thus gained, are real, life changing, and lifelong.

Constructive Learning: As described thus far, it becomes clear why a digital fabrication education lies fully within the tradition of “constructive learning” (see Dale Dougherty, from “The Maker Mindset”):

“… digital fabrication as a species of maker learning engages the students in creating external embodiments of their ideas and thereby testing the ideas themselves, and forcing a reconsideration of the utility and meaning of those ideas. The resulting, tangible end products not only provide them instant feedback and incentive to revise their views, but also provide visible, shareable results demonstrating their growing technical abilities, while representing the expressive or artistic personalities of all involved.”

Confidence and Self-Expression: The belief, “I can build almost anything” is personally verifiable, and the proof is demonstrable (each success builds a student’s portfolio). And the ability to contribute to projects that include older, more educated or advanced makers nurtures a powerful sense of being a contributor in any social or epistemic context. It goes beyond basic confidence though: the iterative design and fabrication process, in which failure is embraced as part of development, and ultimately overcome, imbues students with the virtues of patience, resilience, and perseverance.

Moreover, every shared idea is a chance to express the student’s creative sensibilities – creativity is fundamental, and its thoughtful expression is a necessary part of the process.

Empowering Social Change and Civic Agency

  • Locally: Designing and building something useful to one’s friends and neighbors will transform any student into a believer in their own power to improve the conditions of the community they are part of. Each naturally becomes their own social change agent, and begins to feel a civic responsibility to meet the needs of those around them.
  • Worldwide: Reaching further, the open model of shared collaborative design and fabrication, extended beyond the classroom, connects them to other maker-spaces throughout the world; in this way, students can create real global impact, and literally change the world through their ideas shared digitally.

Specialized Community Applications

Digital fabrication spaces are flexible enough in their learning model to accommodate every community’s specific needs, with the output expressing its unique identity. However, some communities are especially well situated to benefit fully from all they have to offer. Two examples:

Indigenous Communities

Native communities around the globe face some common challenges – in part as a result of shared historical precedents, and in part because of the physical spaces they inhabit.

Whether in Canada or Australia, many indigenous communities are seeking to reinvigorate the role of traditional craft and art, as a means to reestablish a common cultural core, reconnecting younger generations to an historical narrative, but also to each other, often across vast distances. Digitally empowered indigenous craftsmen and craftswomen, are in a powerful new position to share (and control the sharing of) their work: digital fabrication spaces linked to others around the globe may serve as a ‘cultural transmission vehicle’ connecting them worldwide, without dependency on the usual gatekeepers of mass media and mass production.

Geography itself poses broader challenges also amenable to a digital fabrication solution: Native communities are often remote from the backbone transportation and infrastructure responsible for delivering goods and services to non-native communites. As such, they have a great deal to gain from a manufacturing-on-demand capacity: remote villages, whether Arctic or Outback, can, through digital fabrication, produce vehicle parts, medical tools, home conveniences, or educational tools for the next generation, precisely when needed and at a fraction of the usual price, without reliance on the outside world or its transportation demands, all in designs that express the culture and spirt of those who fabricate them. They can even participate in distant markets interested in their digital designs, reinvesting the returns locally.

Thus, the self-directed digital fabrication education, by and for aboriginal students, produces in turn, transformative community tools of cultural restoration, reconnection, and the independent ability to meet local needs with indigenous designed goods – improving each communities power to determine for itself the material shape of its future, after generations of imposed manufacturing dependency.

Education is well understood as a key to socioeconomic status. A degree of higher education and certification is often a prerequisite for better paying, higher status, occupations. Dropout and delayed graduation influence future earnings and employment opportunities, and are potentially important inequality generating mechanisms (Falch & Strøm, 2013). To some extent, observed correlations between dropout propensity and socioeconomic background may be a result of dropout being most prevalent among children from families with low socioeconomic status in terms of level of education (Falch & Strøm, 2013), creating a damaging feedback loop further limiting education and economic opportunities.

Digital fabrication education, particularly because of flexibility and suitability to younger students, can help communities break out of that vicious spiral by providing access to technologically advanced digital tools and machines, giving them a familiarity with technology, and a set of technical skills, normally associated with higher-education (Mortara & Parisot, 2016). It can help lower the ‘digital divide’ at the same time providing students the social collaboration ‘soft skills’ that will permit them to comfortably and successfully enter a work world currently dominated by those from higher-education communities. In short, digital fabrication education can level the playing field without requiring students manage the hurdles or expense associated with traditional higher education.