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  • Sarah Prendergast Wallace

Digital Makerspaces and the Computer Lab Analogy

I am a Fab Lab Manager. When I tell folks my job title, the most common response I get is ‘What is a Fab Lab?’ I quickly say it’s Digital Fabrication Laboratory and essentially I run a makerspace full of technical tools including 3D printers, laser cutters, electronic cutting machines, CNC routers, electronics and more. Most people still don’t know what that means, but they nod and smile and we move on.

When I talk to teachers or administrators about bringing digital fabrication tools into their schools I often am directed to the science or math teachers, or maybe a librarian. While I would love for every science and math teacher and librarian to have access to a 3D printer or other digital fabrication machines, my goal is for every teacher who wants one to have a machine of their own in their classrooms. I often find myself using the Computer Lab Analogy to explain my reasoning:

Think back to your middle school or high school days, did you take a Typing class? I sure did. My average, suburban, American high school had a teacher who only taught typing, every period, every semester, just typing. Can you remember those typing programs we used to time our typing? Or those cardboard blockers that covered our hands to test our touch-typing skills? How things have changed as I edit this on my phone... We also had a Computer Science teacher. In Computer Science 1 we learned the art of word processing. I recall writing a made up story about a purse snatcher to demonstrate I was able to properly use the column feature for a fake school newspaper. I also created a riveting Powerpoint presentation that detailed no less than twelve different breeds of dogs, all of which were highlighted by my extensive use of timed transitions and fade in photos. Next, I moved on to Computer Science 2, this was by far the most challenging course of the three, for it was dedicated to spreadsheets and databases! So many faux budgets and imaginary business cards!

While I’m sure the majority of the school’s staff agreed that typing was a useful skill that most students should have upon graduating high school, I’m not so sure that the same sentiment was shared for the skills covered in the Computer Science classes. A few teachers had computers on their desks, but most didn’t. No classroom had computers for student use, except for the computer lab, of course. I can’t be sure, as I was just a distracted teen at the time, but I remember thinking that some teachers didn’t… what’s the right word… value?- value the content covered in Computer Science or the teacher herself. Afterall, she was the only teacher who talked about powerpoints or spreadsheets, as we never had to actually USE any of those fancy computer programs in any other class.

This is where the similarity lies with digital fabrication tools. Think of the first teacher you know who had a 3d printer in their classroom. What was the opinion of the rest of the staff? Were they lining up to use it for their content? My colleagues certainly weren’t. I was just that teacher who was always doing slightly weird things- teaching math with frosting? Yep! Blindfolding students for a taste test? You betcha! So why not add a strange machine or two into the mix?!

Twenty years ago, most teachers thought that the Computer Science teacher was just that crazy computer lady down the hall who really liked word processing. Today, if you asked a teacher to keep track or calculate their own grades without the use of a learning management system or at least a spreadsheet, most would look at you like you’d grown a tail. Computers started off in one classroom with one teacher who really knew how to use them and now they are essential to everyday learning from taking attendance to interactive white boards and blended learning.

Ten years ago, most teachers hadn’t heard of 3D printing. Five years ago a few schools had a technology teacher with a 3D printer in their classroom who was seen as that crazy 3D printer lady down the hall who really likes to make stuff. Today, more and more core content teachers are using 3D printing and other digital fabrication tools on a regular basis, it’s only a matter of time until every teacher sees a 3D printer or laser cutter not as an unknown or something that is just for STEM teachers, but as one more tool in their teacher tool belt.

Digital Fabrication machines are a new way for students to create a tangible artifact of their learning, but that doesn’t mean they are the only way. Some topics or units may lend themselves to a summative assessment in form of a presentation or talk, while others require a good, old-fashioned paper, but some projects may be best ended with a 3-dimensional model or even a cnc routed chair.

Today it’s assumed that students of the 21st century are learning the basics of computer science like typing and how to use a word processor or share a google doc in their core content classes. Many schools today don’t have a computer science teacher anymore, but they may have a robotics or engineering teacher. Most schools I visit don’t have a computer lab, they have rolling laptop carts that can be shared among classrooms, or students have their own devices they take with them from room to room. Is this the same path that makerspaces or fab labs will take? Now some schools have one or two machines or maybe they have a designated STEM room full of 3D printers and laser cutters and maker materials. How long will it take for these machines and materials, and the mindset that goes with them, to spread into every teacher and classroom in the school?

Using this analogy with teachers (most of whom have memories of the pre-laptop days) always leads to some fun stories about Oregon Trail or turning in English papers on floppy disks. Teachers today experienced the change computers and the internet had on education as learners and can use their personal experience to imagine how this next wave of technological advancement will affect students today and in the future.


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