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  • Sarah Prendergast Wallace

Mobile Fab Labs in Formal K-12 Education

Back in 2010 I was a first-year algebra teacher in New York City who had been chosen to be a part of The Digital Teaching Corp- a group of teachers who were paired with designers to prototype innovative and digital learning experiences. There were about 20 folks in the group with a wide variety of education and technical backgrounds, all of whom just wanted to get kids learning in interesting ways. Many of the ideas were great and fun but required students to have access to technology that few schools had at the ready. When discussing this with the group I said “Wouldn’t it be great if we just had a semi-truck filled with computers and tech and maker stuff that we could drive up to a school, do a hack-a-thon and then leave the next day?” Everyone agreed that would be nice and the conversation moved on. Now, over a decade later, I am a Mobile Fab Lab manager.

The phrase ‘Mobile Fab Lab’ can mean different things depending on who you ask. Some folks might think of the first official Mobile Fab Lab; MIT’s 32-foot long trailer covered in graffiti art and robots and filled with high tech digital fabrication tools. Others may think of their local library’s van which has a 3d printer and some art supplies. And maybe one or two people just might think of that mini fab lab on a bike! Just like stationary Fab Labs, ones with wheels are just as diverse and serve a multitude of purposes. Some focus on humanitarian efforts, visiting remote villages to fabricate medical equipment or build housing. Other Mobile Labs focus on innovation and entrepreneurship traveling to colleges and universities trying to help the next big inventor make almost anything. And of course, there are the Mobile Fab Labs that focus on education, specifically the formal education of children.

Mobile Fab Labs or Makerspaces are becoming more and more popular in formal K-12 education. When you think about it, this really makes sense. Most schools don’t have the funds, space, time, personnel or expertise to have a Fab Lab or Makerspace of their own in the building. But a Mobile Fab Lab can be shared among schools in a district or region. Some schools may make use of a Mobile Lab because it is exciting, fun and a great way to bring something new to a school environment. While other schools may use the services of a Mobile Lab to try it on for size before making the commitment to building a stationary makerspace of their own.

Mobile Fab Labs in formal K-12 education face a unique set of challenges. Not only does a mobile lab need a lab manager with Fab skills, but that person also needs to be well trained in formal pedagogy to be able to work with students ages 4 to 18 as well as offer training or professional development to teachers. A Mobile Fab Lab manager also requires strong project management skills to juggle multiple school visits per month or even week. Not only do they need to think about lesson plans as a traditional teacher does, but they also need to consider where to park the lab, making a new schedule for each visit, permission slips, gas mileage, and more. Which leads to other transportation related challenges- flat tires, parallel parking, and parking tickets (oh, my!)!

But above all else, Mobile Fab Lab managers must be flexible. Things can get weird in a Mobile Fab Lab - you’re working with students you don’t know, at a school you may have never been to before doing a lesson that may or may not work given the students’ ability, teacher’s preparation or even mother nature (I have had to cancel events due to snow, rain, heat, and bees alike). Situations arise in a Mobile Fab Lab that most likely would not come up in a traditional classroom or makerspace. For example, the trailer’s generator won’t start or you run out of gas. You get to a school and find out that while you had planned to work with the 5th grade that teacher had an emergency and you’ll actually be working with 1st grade. There was a sudden rain and ice storm and the heavy-duty lock you use on the trailer’s front door is frozen solid with ice (I used an extension cord and a heat gun to thaw it out). The list goes on...

Despite all their challenges and mishaps, Mobile Fab Labs are playing an excellent role in today’s education landscape. When a student is exposed to new technology or content you can see the spark in their eyes as they watch an object grow layer by layer in a 3D printer, or see their own designs come to life with a laser cutter. For some that spark will ignite a love for STEM and problem solving and for a few it may just grow into a career that could change the world.

We hear that a lot - one of these kids might be the next so-and-so. And while I hope that one of the thousands of students I have worked with in my years as a teacher does grow up to make a global impact, I also have hopes for the teachers. I want my visits with the Mobile Fab Lab to spark something inside the teachers as well as their students. I hope that the teachers I work with see the value in students creating tangible artifacts of their learning and how the design process can not only be used to build things, but also ideas. I dream of those teachers being motivated to try out creative pedagogy in their own classrooms with some problem based learning, integration of digital fabrication tools, or blended instruction. I think of it sort of like the ‘teach a man to fish’ analogy. Teach a kid to 3D print something and they have a trinket, teach a teacher how to use design thinking and a tool or two in their classroom and you may just change the world.

Sarah has been running a Mobile Fab Lab in Cleveland since 2016. She is very interested in connecting with other Mobile Fab Labs to share best practices and create a stronger community. If you have or know of a mobile lab, please take a second to fill out this quick form.

Have any questions specifics of running a mobile fab lab? Reach out, let’s talk.

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