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.