From Drab to FABLab: How One District Trains Kids on 21st Century Skills

From Drab to FABLab: How One District Trains Kids on 21st Century Skills

Elizabeth Forward School District

Opening up the Elizabeth Forward DREAM Factory.We are already fifteen years into the 21st Century, and many educators continue to talk about the importance of students gaining “21st Century and STEM skills,” like computer programming and 3D design. But the big question is, how much has our curriculum changed to address 21st Century skills in K-12 schools across the country? Are curriculums and graduation requirements still left over from the 20th Century?

Perhaps the move is daunting, and to support the transition, let’s take an intimate look at how the Elizabeth Forward School District has made the shift with an on-site “FABLab”.

DREAM-ing Big with a Middle School FABLab

In the Spring of 2013, administrators from the Elizabeth Forward School District, 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, PA, reached out to experts in the FABLab and Makerspace world. We talked with Sherry Lassister from MIT, Dale Dougherty from MAKE, Dan Woods from TechSHOP and Mickey McManus and Paul Gould from MAYA Design to help understand what a FABLab looks like in a middle school.

As we reached out to the FABLab experts across the world, we realized we were walking down a new path for a middle school initiative. We wanted to hook the students in the middle school years and then build off of their skills into the high school. Moving out of the industrial age and artifical making, schools need to have students explore the designing process, from prototypes to the design software and then make the product.

We decided to bring down the silos between art, computer science and technology education departments, as students struggle to see the connection between these subjects, and our teachers traditionally don’t create interdisciplinary projects.

We created a FABLAb that we call the DREAM Factory during the summer of 2013, between the art, computer science and technology teachers to help middle school (11-13 year olds) make almost anything.

The DREAM Factory: Visual Arts

As you enter into the DREAM Factory, you walk down Innovation Hallway where there are artifacts from the steam engine, the first calculator, the first television, floppy disks to Google glasses are on the walls of the industrial theme hallway. Students are inspired by all of the innovations from the 20th Century. And as you walk down Innovation Hallway, the first thing you encounter is the art room.

The art room has two 3D printers, several 3D Doodle pens, a 3D scanner, laptops and several Wacom tablets. But it’s not just about the shiny new tools. The art teacher still teaches traditional art techniques, but tries to include technology in most projects. How?

The art teacher has changed the curriculum over the last two years to include the following: how to 2D design using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop using Wacom tablets and Inkscape, how to design in 3D using Google SketchUp, 123D AutoDesk apps and TinkerCAD and 3D printing, how to capture a 3D scan and 3D print, how to animation using several different 3D apps. Integrating these new tools in the art room, has engaged more students and taken the learning beyond the classroom. Students are downloading the software on their iPads and continuing to make projects using these digital tools.

The DREAM Factory: Computer Science

Next up, the computer science room is called “Silicon Valley East.” This room was redesigned to inspire students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School to possibly work for a company in Silicon Valley. It has posters of the Silicon Valley companies and two clocks are on the wall--one with Silicon Valley time, and the other with Elizabeth, PA time.

The room has robotics kits, a television studio with green screen and two 3D printers, and the computer science teacher has changed the curriculum over the last two years. All students learn the following: computer programming using micro-controllers such as, Wedos, Makey Makeys, robotics, green screen technologies, multi-media productions and 3D design using the 3D printers. The computer science still teaches the Microsoft suite, but it’s integrated into the curriculum. For example, we still teach Excel, but its integrated into robotics and listing all of the robotics parts.

Students are now more engaged in computer science at the middle school level and we created our first robotics club and a technology student association (TSA) club. Students are staying after school to continue video projects and are demanding summer enrichment programs in computer programming.

The DREAM Factory: Technology Education

Finally, our Technology Education room has been painted with fun colors, a design area for students and now has a new prototype lab. The prototype lab has four 3D printers, a CNC router, a laser cutter and a vinyl cutter. The room also has traditional woodshop equipment, but the days are over of the industrial age and 100 clocks that look exactly the same with artificial making. The technology education curriculum has changed to teach the following: 2D and 3D design using Inkscape and Google SketchUp, 3D printing and techniques to use the laser cutter, electronics and design thinking.

Students are now skipping lunch, staying after school and coming before school starts to 3D print personal projects, using the laser cutters for projects beyond the classroom and are demanding to keep the lab open during the summer months.

The DREAM Factory: What It’s Like for the Teachers

The DREAM Factory teachers (art, computer science and technology education) have two days a week to plan interdisciplinary projects. Common planning time has been the key to help break down the silos between the departments and to create the DREAM Factory.

For example, the compsci, arts, and technology departments banded together to create a “candy bar” project where students can mix skills learned in all classrooms. Students digitally design a chocolate bar in 3D software, create a mold of the 3D print in the technology education room, use Photoshop to create logos and wrappers in the art room and lastly create a 30-second commercial for their candy bar using green screen and a business plan in the computer science room. This project takes about two weeks, but students learn several 21st Century skills along the way, using the different teachers within the DREAM Factory to create their “dream” candy bar.

School districts across the world need to review their curriculums and graduation requirements to ensure that ALL students are getting the 21st Century Skills in order to be successful and productive citizens for the future. We at the Elizabeth Forward School District truly believes this DREAM Factory model can be replicated across the country in all middle schools. 

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