Fab Labs: Using Technology to Make (Almost) Anything!

Fab Labs: Using Technology to Make (Almost) Anything!

High school students learn career-shaping skills through groundbreaking fabrication laboratory.
Working with vinyl cutters, students in the Mahtomedi School District’s engineering program create their own folder covers.

Students taking the ‘How to Make (Almost) Anything’ class at Mahtomedi High School in Mahtomedi, Minn. can literally make almost anything—from chess pieces to cups to chairs, and DVD cases to clocks to lampshades—right in their classroom. And besides getting a daily dose of amazement, these students are making history in the first public school district with access to such groundbreaking, hands-on STEM education.

With guidance and expertise from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Mahtomedi School District is operating one of the nation’s first public school fabrication laboratories, or Fab Labs, joining over 140 operating in universities and businesses worldwide, and hundreds more in the planning stages. Mahtomedi is a suburb of St. Paul, about 20 miles east of Minneapolis.

The Mahtomedi Fab Lab, which opened in the fall of 2011, is a state-of-the-art design center that allows students to electronically design objects such as chairs, lamps, or even a chocolate mold of a face. Then, they actually produce these objects using groundbreaking 3D printers, which take the virtual designs and lay down material such as liquid, powder, or metal layer by layer to build a real-life model within hours. The 3D printers have the capability to change how the world produces things, allowing for revolutionary manufacturing.

Mahtomedi High School studentsBuilding a Fab Lab

The Mahtomedi Fab Lab cost about $116,000 for the equipment, software, and supplies startup, and was part of a $15 million high school remodel plan that voters passed in 2010. Administrators sought to build an engineering lab with the remodel. After seeing the projects coming out of a Fab Lab at nearby Century College, the district’s engineering program director, Mary George, saw the potential for Mahtomedi students to break out of the traditional classroom mold with such high-tech equipment and the opportunity to design and build real products. Excitement grew in the community, and the Fab Lab came to fruition with the remodel and outside funding from local businesses. In the Mahtomedi Fab Lab today, high school students choose an object to make, write a proposal, design it with computer software, and finally use the equipment to create a real-life version.

“Basically, [the Fab Lab is] a place to take your ideas from a sketch board to physical reality,” says Sherry Lassiter, a program manager who helps coordinate Fab Lab projects worldwide at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, an interdisciplinary initiative that investigates the boundary between computer science and physical science. And those ideas range from “the whimsical to the practical to the re-inventive,” she says.

A Robust Engineering Curriculum

The Mahtomedi Fab Lab is part of the district’s robust, mandatory engineering curriculum, implemented in 2007, that spans from early childhood education through grade 12. While the high school students use the Fab Lab, each school in the district has a smaller-scale “discovery lab” so all students have hands-on engineering opportunities from the start of their education.

At Mahtomedi High School, all ninth graders take a science class that combines physics, chemistry, and engineering, and then have the option to take How to Make (Almost) Anything, aerospace engineering, or a college-level introduction to engineering course taught by a professor from Century College, all of which use the Fab Lab. The Fab Lab is an expansive open space, and is connected to a design studio full of computers, which was a new addition this school year, and a more traditional shop lab with a table saw and drill press.

3D printerObvious Success

The district boasts the state’s highest science and math standardized test scores, which Principal Kathe Nickleby attributes to the engineering program. In 2012, the district’s proficiency in state science testing was 81 percent (consistently rising from 72 percent since 2008), compared to the state average of 51 percent.

Nickleby says she doesn’t know of any other district that has implemented an engineering curriculum to the same extent. “It’s so important for us to help students develop an understanding of engineering to bring to college to help the U.S. stay competitive,” she says.

A significant number of Mahtomedi students pursue STEM studies and careers after high school, Nickleby says, and the school has started to track the numbers. “It’s been fun to see the kids become comfortable with the equipment and work with it on their own,” says Matt Young, a Mahtomedi science teacher and Fab Lab specialist. “I’ve talked to other engineers and manufacturing companies, and they’re excited because what students are doing right now is what some people are learning on the job.”

Fab Lab Equipment

Fab Lab equipment includes laser cutters, which etch designs or cut flat sheet material such as acrylic to make objects like hall passes and decorative letters; vinyl cutters for making signs; a 3D printer; and a Polycom unit, which is a special computer that connects the school to MIT engineers and Fab Labs worldwide via video conferencing for project collaboration. George hopes to eventually pursue worldwide project collaboration at Mahtomedi High. “Students can take their theory and apply it and make it relevant for them,” she says.

The 3D printer’s newer models, which look something like a sewing machine inside a toaster oven, use what is called additive technology to build objects layer by layer, from the bottom up. Though the idea of this printer is often what captures people’s imaginations due to the idea that it can make something from virtually nothing, it is actually the least capable tool in a Fab Lab, says MIT’s Lassiter. With guidance, she adds, a student could use a laser cutter (the two at Mahtomedi were about $21,000 each) to design and create an object, such as a keychain in two hours, whereas a 3D printer would take longer, or up to six hours.

Laser cutters and milling machines (tools with rotating cutters that can shape metal) use subtractive technology, in which a block of material gets chiseled into a model by a laser or spinning drill respectively, and are much quicker and more flexible in terms of what can be made, Lassiter says. For example, students can use Adobe Illustrator to design a chair in 2D on the computer, which Illustrator will position into a 3D model. Students can then use a laser cutter to cut the material—say, blocks of wood—into 2D pieces, and fit them together to make the 3D chair.

“We’re at the point where anyone anywhere can make almost anything,” says Lassiter. “At some point it will be pretty ubiquitous, and these kinds of integrated skills will be in high demand and will change manufacturing.”

A MakerBot at-home 3D printer, the Replicator 2, which costs $2,199. Impact of Fab Lab

In the Mahtomedi district, working in the Fab Lab exposes all students to engineering, problem-solving, and group work skills, even those who may not have had an interest in engineering. The number of How to Make (Almost) Anything classes doubled this school year, from three to six, with about 25 students in each section, and female student enrollment rose from 16 to 36.

Though Mahtomedi was the first public district to implement a preK12 engineering curriculum and a Fab Lab, MC2STEM High School, a project-based STEM charter school in Cleveland, was the first U.S. high school to integrate a Fab Lab into its curriculum. The school was intent on preparing students for college and careers in STEM fields and a 21st century global economy.

The demand for high school Fab Labs nationwide has increased, Lassiter says, and with it, the interest in STEM careers that the country will need. “I’ve seen it happen time and time again where students come in and get hooked. Many of them pursue higher education in either a STEM discipline or teaching,” Lassiter says. “It has real meaning, and if they’re learning in the service of something they really want to make, that makes it even more exciting and powerful.”

For more information on Fab Labs, visit fab.cba.mit.edu.

Alison DeNisco is staff writer for District Administration.