Fab Lab Makes Impact on Special and Alternative Education Students

A hands-on STEM learning center at Colonial High School (CHS) in Grindstone, PA, provides needed skills, an emotional outlet, and a lifeline to many teens.
No goal is too lofty for IU1 Fab Lab students. “I can think of new things that can help the world become a better place,” says one teen who uses the hands-on STEM learning center at Colonial High School (CHS) in Grindstone, PA.

Student works in a Fab Lab.

Don Martin, assistant executive director at Intermediate Unit I—a public educational service agency for southwestern PA  schools and communities—helped bring the Fab Lab to CHS, working closely with an IU1 team and partners Chevron and the Fab Foundation on the physical space, its mission, and the curriculum, which draws heavily from the Inventionland curriculum. While located in the high school, the Fab Lab at CHS is open to all students in the IU1 region. It provides opportunities for students with learning disabilities and behavioral issues to get STEM-related career and technical training. Martin’s curriculum enhances skills such as prototyping and machinery operation, and also teaches soft skills including leadership and communication. It is one of many across the country: in high schools, on college campuses, and in the community. “They’re open to anyone who is looking to innovate and invent—students, teachers, administrators, families, or researchers,” says Chevron’s Janet Auer, who oversees the company’s education partnerships. Fab Labs are not typically designed for special and alternative education students. But Martin saw the program as an opportunity to elevate the hands-on and project-based educational learning options for this population in his region. “Many of our amazing students are hands-on learners naturally, which is something we’re able to focus on and foster within a Fab Lab,” he explains.

Students learn in a hands-on environment at a the Fab Lab.

Individually and in collaboration with their peers, CHS students have worked with 3-D printers, laser cutters, and rapid-prototyping machines.  A highlight of their Fab Lab experience was showing off their new project-based skills at the Chevron STEM Zone at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC, in April. One CHS student was particularly impressive at the festival, Martin says.  “She stood out on the very first day as she served as the guiding mother hen to several of our younger students.” The 19-year-old senior had been in and out of foster homes as a child, according to Martin, and told him that she was considering getting a job at a fast food restaurant after graduating. “It was evident that this young lady was amazingly talented with the equipment of the Fab Lab, in addition to being smart and witty,” Martin says. With Martin's help, Brittany now has an internship with the Fab Lab technology department, learning about the lab operations instead of only being a participant. “Brittany is now utilizing her talents while learning from our expert technicians as she works in the field each day,” says Martin, adding that there's potential for her to be hired full-time for the summer and attend a trade school in the fall. Brittany is not the only student whose future has been altered by the lab. “I want to stick with my original goal of going to college for performing arts or theater. But after working in the Fab Lab, I now want to add some additional training or a minor in technology education,” another high school senior says. “Now that I know the process for inventing, I can invent things that could change the way we live in today’s world. I can also use this knowledge to help others who may have an idea for an invention but do not know what to do next.” Another Fab Lab participant is also rethinking future education choices. “I would now like to pursue more education or training in the areas of carpentry, laser cutting, and 3-D design or printing,” the junior says. For some, the Fab Lab has represented nothing short of a lifeline. “A student was having something educators refer to as an ‘emotional distress episode’ in the hallway,” says Martin. “On a whim, I walked him to the Fab Lab, and he de-escalated within seconds. He noticed the equipment in the room, the engaging visuals, and began asking questions and exploring the Lab with my supervision.” The incident made Martin realize that the Lab is not just an educational resource, but a calming environment that can help kids focus while providing an emotional outlet. It has also given them a new appreciation for teamwork and collaboration. “I like the fact that you always can build amazing things with the help of your peers if you work together,” says one senior. “Even though we all have our differences here at Colonial, when we are in the lab, we can work together and get things done.”
Martin's advice for educators wanting to start a Fab Lab, particularly for special needs students: Consider all audiences and new approaches. Think about which part of your student population could benefit. The CHS Fab Lab was a way to provide new opportunities for a high concentration of special and alternative education students who have a high rate of disciplinary and attendance issues. Underscore the purpose of failure. Special needs students can be highly averse to failure or get frustrated easily. It is imperative that instructors communicate that failure in the Lab is common and perfectly acceptable, and demonstrate how important mistakes are in the learning process. The Inventionland curriculum is a great resource highlighting several famous inventors and their numerous failures. Incorporate diverse stakeholders in the development process. For the Fab Lab to work best, it needs to reflect the needs of your students and community. Create a culture of collaboration. We invited teachers, parents, administrators, custodians and even students when we were planning, addressing everything from the Lab’s mission and vision to the physical incorporation of the Lab into the school building. Stratergize about location and delivery. Pick a location that allows for as many students and communities as possible to benefit. The partnership with Chevron also supplied a mobile Fab Lab counterpart, which allows for visiting far-flung towns. Align lessons student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) but allow flexibility.  Many students are weaning themselves away from their IEP adaptations as they become more familiar with the Lab. Develop opportunities for collaboration. Teamwork is a skill that we’re constantly looking to develop, given that many of these students struggle in traditional classrooms. Incorporate cooperative group work whenever possible and ensure each student is assigned tasks in group projects, so they can take on leadership roles at times as well. Integrate the Lab into the students’ larger coursework. It’s not an extracurricular program or a reward for good behavior, Lab activities should be fully integrated into a student’s educational path. Be prepared to manage the lab’s popularity. Some students won’t want to go back to the traditional classrooms. Try to develop ways to ease the transition. We provide teachers resources and materials to perform Lab extension activities in their classrooms and connect the Fab Lab to their subject matter.

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