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A High School Lab As Engaging as Facebook

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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One of Blikstein's FabLabs@School. Image credit: Anna Kuchment

Just down the hall from Paulo Blikstein’s office at Stanford University is a student laboratory of the future. It has spring green-and-yellow tiled floors, matching walls and is stocked with every type of digital fabrication tool one can imagine: laser cutters, 3D printers, 3D scanners, 3D milling machines, robotics, and programming tools.  “In short, we have machines that can shape objects and electronics to make those objects behave,” says Blikstein, director of the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University.

MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld originally envisioned Fab Labs as small-scale digital workshops accessible to all. Blikstein adapted the concept specifically for junior high and high schools.  His FabLabs@School are spaces where students work on long-term, creative projects, using their imaginations to bridge the gap between their ideas and the tools and training necessary to bring them to fruition. Since 2009, Blikstein and his colleagues have opened five experimental FabLabs@School: one in Bangkok, Thailand; one in Moscow, Russia; and three in Palo Alto. A sixth is opening soon in Melbourne, Australia, a seventh in Mexico City. As they roll out the labs, they conduct careful research on how best to deploy and make use of them in an educational setting.

I visited Blikstein on a recent trip to Palo Alto to hear more about his work.

Why is it important for middle and high-school students to have access to digital workshops like the FabLabs@School?

I think one of the things about Fab Labs and maker spaces, especially for children, is that children have very interesting, creative ideas, but the distance between the ideas and their realization is very large. What Fab Labs and maker spaces do is to put the idea and its realization closer together—they make it easier and faster. These are the hammers and saws and scissors of the 21st century.

Would these replace old-school labs with beakers and Bunsen burners?

The labs that we create and design can also be used for chemistry and biology, because we want the science teacher to use the lab to do projects. These labs can be engineering labs but also chemistry and science labs, and I think the integration is very important to understand: the engineering and science is all connected.

Too often, science labs are what we call “cookbook labs” – they’re too scripted. That removes the excitement and inquiry from science. Students already know the result before they even start the experiment. When you do science in these Fab Lab spaces, you can do it in an inquiry based way.

What do you want students to gain from working in a Fab Lab?

One goal is that we have all these new sets of skills and abilities that we want kids to learn: critical thinking, problem solving, advanced communication skills. We want them to be able to navigate ill-structured problems, and building projects in those labs is a great way to learn those skills.

But it’s also about the relevance of school itself. Fifty years ago, kids could go to school and then play baseball or ride their bikes around the neighborhood. Today there are a billion other things you can do if you’re a child in the 21st century: play video games, travel, be on Facebook, be on your computer, make videos, compose music. The problem is that all of those other thing are very compelling, and they are evolving very rapidly, yet school is still much the same as it was 50 years ago. We need to make school more exciting, more interesting, more attention grabbing. Otherwise, it will become a mandatory but irrelevant part of kids’ lives. Especially for kids from low-income communities, because they don’t have college-educated parents to help them at home. The more we can make school exciting and interesting, the more we are benefitting low-income kids. Because if those kids don’t see anything interesting in school they just drop out. Middle class kids don’t drop out, because their parents will tell them to stay in school.

My theory is, when we make school more exciting, more interesting, we are disproportionately helping people who need it the most.

Is the ultimate goal to have a Fab Lab in every school?

I would love to have every school in the U.S. with a Fab Lab or maker space. But the first step is research. I see a lot of robotics labs at schools that get a lot of publicity, but when you go and see what they do, it’s the elite kids – 15 out of 300 in the school — that use these labs. I think it’s important to make the lab a place for everyone, not just those kids. We need to attract females, to attract low-achieving students. We put a lot of work into not letting the lab look like a guy’s garage or a room for geeks. We try to design spaces that are bright, colorful, inviting, that are appealing to a variety of kids. And all of that comes from many cycles of research.

What studies are you doing on the labs?

One study we did was about the value of discovery. We had two groups of students, and they had to learn a particular content topic, a particular science topic. One group watched a video first and then did more discovery-based activities. The other group did the discovery activities first – without knowing anything about the topic – where they could play with the problem, and then they watched a video. The group that did the experimentation first scored 25 percent higher [on a subsequent quiz] than the group that watched the lecture first. We did three follow up studies, and we got the same results.

The idea is whenever you tell people the answer and then let them practice, they learn significantly less than when you let them practice and then tell them. You can imagine that one of the reasons is, if I tell you the answer and then I give you some lab equipment, you think you already know the answer, so why the heck are you doing experiments? You’re less engaged. And that is exactly the opposite of the flipped classroom. In flipped classrooms, you watch a video at home and then do stuff at school. We are now proposing “the flipped flipped classroom,” where you do the experiment first and then watch a video.

Another study that we are doing is looking at how much instruction teachers should give students with different projects. Let’s say you’re telling them your role is to build a bridge to take this car from this place to this one. In one group we gave them very specific, step by step instructions. We gave another group very general, more open-ended instructions. We’re still finishing the report, but what we found was that when you give too much instruction in the beginning students get addicted to  instructions. So, when we later removed instructions from the detailed instruction group, those kids got very stressed out. The other ones were much more flexible and did not stress as much as this group. (We measured stress with skin conductivity sensors).

The third study we’re doing is we tell kids to build a tower using different kinds of materials and then we see how novices build things and track their movements using special cameras. The idea is to see if by building lots of things novices start to acquire expert-like techniques.

Imagine a Fab Lab where you have kids there all the time building and making things. It might be that they will not get better at what they do if they can’t systematize their knowledge. We found that most kids, in fact, need a lot of help to systematize what they know. It’s not spontaneous. It just points to the need, when you have those kinds of labs, to have them well staffed. You need people who are capable. Otherwise kids will build a blinking light, then the next day a rotating motor, and they won’t see a connection between the two.

The big picture thing is, we have a lot of intuitions about how things work that are really not scientific. Like the flipped classroom, or tell and practice. And sometimes lots of teachers in classrooms are using those methods without ever looking at the research that exists showing that it can be done in a better way.

You have an grant through next year to study Multimodal Learning Analytics. Can you describe what that is?

Essentially, it’s a new mode of assessment that we’re trying to design and research. It helps teachers and researchers know kids’ emotional states: if they’re learning, if they are engaged, if they are too stressed or not too stressed.

We use camera sensors that detect movement, as well as biosensors for stress and eye trackers to determine the focus of attention. Then we use machine learning techniques, advanced computer algorithms, to mine that data and look for patterns — patterns in how you move your hands, patterns in arousal levels, in eye movements. We use all of it to look at the kinds of learning that happen in less scripted settings. When you’re building something, you are engaging all your senses.

But aren’t most teachers already attuned to how their students are feeling?

I think teachers are great at sensing those kinds of things, but in Fab Labs and new maker space the rules are different. We don’t have a lot of teachers who are well trained to teach in those spaces. People [in Fab Labs and maker spaces] are doing all kinds of things: soldering, cutting, designing on the computer, and we don’t know much about those kinds of patterns in more open-ended spaces. Just imagine the difference between a lecture and an art class.

We want to find those [behavioral] patterns and help teachers learn how to teach in more creative, open-ended ways, but knowing more about student reactions and learning. Now a lot of teaching in those new spaces is intuitive, and we want to put more science into that. There is a lot of science about lectures and traditional teaching, now we want to build the science of teaching in Fab Labs and creative spaces. That’s the way we will make it prevalent in public schools and not only in a few elite institutions.

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Arbeiter 12:23 pm 11/29/2013

    Especially for kids from low-income communities” Especially for Severely and Profoundly Gifted kids. Invest in futures you want.

    FabLabs@School bursts with unknown hazards. Abolish it, as the FDA ended 23andMe giving mere people knowledge of their genomes. Government outlaws keeping the money and knowledge you earn lest you breach a monopoly of using them unwisely.

    Multimodal Learning Analytics” Yeah, I can do that: “Heteronormatism problematizes homosocial othering.” Save the drama for your mama. Get down and PUSH! Mediocrity is a vice of the doomed.

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  2. 2. learningengineer 10:16 pm 11/29/2013

    Interesting in that the research does not support the “flipped” classroom because learning is meaningless until the student learns the hard lessons of failure. It also goes to show that the field of education is controlled not by research and science, but rather, by hype and popularity.

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  3. 3. greenes 9:20 pm 11/30/2013

    I speak from experience because I know a kid who work has worked in a high school lab while he and his team mates compete in a competition called FTC (FIRST tech challenge). First stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology . He has learned how to use computer modeling software, a 3d milling machines to cut aluminum parts, power tools like chop saws and drill presses to modify parts, and also how to program robots to navigate a field in autonomous mode and the navigate by remote control. This has done wonders for him teaching him how to problem solve and how to think like an engineer. He has learned how to look at a challenge and then solve it. He and his team mates have applied for TWO united states patents and will apply for another in the next few weeks.

    If you think that this is dangerous then you are right everything that they do is dangerous if they do it unsupervised but dancing is dangerous and football is the most dangerous sport for teenagers. One of the teachers who supervises the work tells all the parts that every kid will get hurt and will bleed, but he makes sure that they will never get badly hurt because every one is shown and told how to properly use the equipment. So far no one has been suffered any injury that has caused them to need medical help but the same cannot be said for any football team or ANY sports team.

    If you think that this will not impact his future then you could not be more wrong. Students who have been involved in this kind programs have a huge advantage if they go into any kind of engineering field. Students who get involved in using labs like this also will have advantages when they attempt to apply to college, like my friends son will be able to put that he has 2 patents in his name. How many adults can say that let alone a High Schooler?

    This kind only does good for students and I believe that every school world wide should have a lab where students can learn to program, think critically, and problem solve.

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  4. 4. TRFletcher 5:01 pm 12/3/2013

    This reply is in general to the article but also to the comment by learningengineer.

    There is a key observation in the article where the research director shows that students who first use discovery methods learn more. It is important to understand why. It’s not really about failure first as learningengineer suggests but it’s related. Students learn best when answering questions they care about – even when that caring is small. The students who try to “store” information by hearing lecture or video instruction first, then go try to solve a problem have difficulty accessing the information. Those who first have a context for learning – they already have questions formed – are able to accept information and put it in places that are ready for that information. This makes it easier to access at a later assessment phase. The lab shown here looks fantastic, although I would like to see more science equipment mixed in with the fabrication tools, but it is probably going to always be out of range for states that do not value education. The general process can be done in many ways, however, and I hope that is a focus as this research continues to report what is learned. Nice work on education issues.

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  5. 5. cellen78 6:21 pm 12/3/2013

    Interesting idea. As a science teacher, I would need a lot more training as I wouldn’t know how to use half of the equipment myself. After recently learning about incorporating project based learning I see how powerful this could be, but another thing I’m wondering is how many students are working in there? Seems like a tight space for a whole class, and maybe more like a mentoring/tutoring situation? Could it be scaled up, or would that ruin the authenticity of it?

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  6. 6. mosaa 10:35 pm 12/3/2013

    While this kind of lab would be a great addition to any school, provided adequate training in use of the equipment was provided, it does not replace other labs. Not all traditional labs are “cookbook”. Our obligation as educators is to provide situations in which students are encouraged and supported in activities that foster creative and critical thinking. Any form of inquiry that they design should fulfill this goal whether or not it involves computer technology.

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  7. 7. GeneG 5:24 pm 12/4/2013

    Interestingly, in the article there is plenty of hype but no discussion of results or examples of specific projects and how they worked out. From my experience teaching undergraduate engineering perhaps only 5% end up in the field of engineering they chose. The remainder may work on the periphery after graduation; perhaps in sales. So one has to wonder how effective as distinct from merely interesting these labs are. Perhaps they should be reserved for seniors who are clearly near the top.

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  8. 8. edprochak 2:55 pm 12/5/2013

    the success or failure of the student projects seems incidental to the learning. Reserving this for the elite is clearly off track. And they did describe published research, not just hype.

    Besides, what’s wrong with a different career? I trained as a Physicist, but ended up with a career in software. getting a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering along the way. So would you conclude that the Physics program I went through was not effective??

    This isn’t an Engineering course. I see benefit to several levels of student. Those that take it and go on to be scientists and engineers. That’s easy to see. But this also develops skills for those that take the next level jobs, technicians and operators. Finally it gives some hands on exposure to those students become business owners or non-tech workers, that use these technologies only indirectly in the future. This is for middle school, not college, so I’d really be surprised that all students going through this course to become engineers.

    It has aspects of the old shop classes but using modern tools rather than hammers and saws. There used to be complaints about the MTV generation. The current generation is growing up with distracting technologies all around. This seems like a way to get them engaged long term.


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