• Brian Purvis

ESSER Funds Change the Game for Digital Makerspaces in Schools

In pre-pandemic times, bringing digital fabrication devices to K-12 classrooms was a challenging process and difficult to fund. Now, however, COVID has opened up an opportunity window of funding that could help seed these technologies in schools, helping students recover from pandemic-related learning loss. The recent passage of bills that provide federal relief funds, ESSER, has the potential to stimulate new educational digital makerspaces at an unprecedented level.

It is not hyperbole to state that the funding arriving at many district’s doors over the coming months is a generational windfall. Apportioned based on the number of Title I eligible students, the relief funds can be up to ten times the normal support given by the federal government. Equally important is the fact that these funds have broad allowability so long as they can be tied to bridging learning gaps caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.

Because of the broad directive to effectively use ESSER funds to help students and schools negatively impacted by the pandemic, districts have wildly different plans for leveraging these funds. Look at ten different districts' plans for investing the ESSER funds, and you will often see ten very different strategies ranging from masks and cleaning supplies to teacher pay supplements to building upgrades.

At this moment of unprecedented challenge and resources, the time has come to make a strategic investment in student learning by bringing widespread implementation of digital fabrication to traditional K-12 education. Why would the purchase of vinyl cutters, 3d printers, laser cutters and the like be a permissible expense under the federal guidance for ESSER funding? Why would digital fabrication be an effective way to help students bridge the many gaps caused by the pandemic? Why is this a better strategy than many of the more traditional expenditures common across the United States? Here are three reasons to bring digital fabrication technologies into formal education right now.

1- These technologies provide an opportunity for all students to show their learning.

Digital fabrication is often sold short as simply being a modern way to make things. It is not. In classrooms, digital fabrication is a modern, efficient and effective way for students to show their learning. Imagine replacing shoe box dioramas with virtual landscapes created via CAD software with the option of being 3d printed. Imagine posterboard presentations instead being centered on a large decal designed via Adobe Illustrator and made by a vinyl cutter. Imagine students leveraging both their math, social studies and art skills to create wood engravings of maps illustrating historical events with a laser cutter. Would these new methods detract from curricular learning goals? No. Would they leverage enhanced engagement and encourage the benefits of project based learning in the face of pandemic learning loss? A resounding yes! If student engagement is a vital part of learning acceleration in the wake of the pandemic, it seems bringing elements of digital fabrication into classrooms is a future proof means to that end.

2- Digital design and fabrication learning can extend student learning beyond the classroom. While the focus of the ESSER funds must be on what happens in and around the school day, it does not prevent those investments from having a ripple effect off campus. Knowledge of digital fabrication techniques has this promise. These modern techniques of making are more than just catalysts for learning in the classroom, they can be game changers for empowerment outside the walls of the school. For example, skills learned in making 3d printed cell models in a science classroom are immediately transferable to making 3d printed jewelry outside the classroom. This builds student investment by directly leveraging time spent on learning digital fabrication during the school day towards entrepreneurship, career building and personal growth outside the confines of the instructional day. In many respects, digital fabrication is a modern lemonade stand. It is a bridge from classroom curriculum to career possibilities.

3- Digital makerspaces can have a long lasting impact on a school culture.

Unlike many common uses of ESSER funds, using this generational opportunity to build capacity for digital fabrication in schools is an investment that will have longstanding and visible impact. Converting unused campus spaces into makerspaces and FAB Labs fundamentally changes the paradigm for learning at a school for a decade or longer. Training school staff in digital fabrication techniques encourages equal personal investment in project based learning across the curriculum. Imagine a time that a stroll across campus would bring into sight a whole ecosystem of student digital fabrication projects: custom t-shirts made with help from vinyl cutters; benches and woodworking projects made possible by the CNC machine in the FAB Lab; signage created in design software and published on the school poster printer; 3d printed art, digital displays and so much more.

Leveraging this unprecedented federal stimulus to help students and schools recover from the pandemic is an opportunity that most likely will not recur in our lifetimes. That said, bringing widespread use of digital fabrication to schools can do more than just meet the requirements of the funding, it can be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in how learning is achieved, supported, and shared.

Written by Brian Purvis, Senior Contributor to eduFAB, makerspace consultant.