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School Students Build Robots in Stanford FabLab

It had a promising start: The first model car caught fire, just as it was designed to. But as the car lurched forward it veered wildly to the right, missing its target. Which meant the robotic controller to set loose the pendulum balls would have to be triggered manually. And when the second car spun out, a collective groan went up among the 12 high school students gathered around the workshop table.

High school students from nearby Redwood City participate in an intensive course at the FabLab at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Credit: C. Wesselman

With the smoke from the first car still hanging in the air, the young engineers set to improvising fixes to their Rube Goldberg machine (a whimsical contraption featuring a chain reaction of unlikely mechanical events, named after the cartoonist who specialized in drawing such fanciful machines). The fixes wouldn't be pretty, but after just one week in Stanford's educational FabLab, it went unsaid: Pretty doesn't cut it – performance does.

One of the lesson's facilitators, Marcelo Worsley, was unflappable and upbeat. "Failure is part of the process," said Worsley, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Education. "The students did experience some disappointment when they couldn't get everything working, but they continued to push through and got things working in the end."

The 12 "Makers-in-Residence" recently completed the first of two four-week blocks in this R&D boot camp run by the Graduate School of Education's Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (TLT Lab). They'll return again in May.

The TLT lab, and the FabLab@School program within it, are the work of Paulo Blikstein, an assistant professor of education, who brought the digital fabrication lab concept to Stanford and was the first to adapt it for secondary school instruction in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math. His research examines how students are affected by their experiences in this and other FabLabs.

Blikstein's immersive, full-day program – a total of 240 hours – is designed to take these students deeper into the design process than any afterschool program, robotics club or science camp.

The students, from the Summit and Everest high schools in nearby Redwood City, are a diverse group. Some are alpha-geeks who came with ambitious intentions ("I want to build an iPhone from scratch"). Others had no experience at all with programming or fabrication, and no expectations other than to enhance their creativity.

Even for the alpha-geeks, the FabLab@School program represents a missing piece: a chance to work in a design lab equipped with the latest digital tools, such as laser cutters and 3-D printers.

For Xan Stoddard, a 17-year-old Summit senior, who chooses his words as precisely as he codes Java, the FabLab offers another perspective on his four years of honors math and science. "I just want to get a taste of what engineering might be like," he said during a break from debugging car No. 2.

At first glance, the Rube Goldberg exercise may resemble play. But it's a careful replication of what happens in R&D labs every day: Small teams designing and building solutions to a problem, then integrating them into a functioning product or process.

"Innovation and collaborative problem-solving are core skills for virtually any STEM career, and yet those are the very elements that have been pushed out of schools by the mandates of standardized testing," said Blikstein. "Most high school students will graduate without the experience of having ever designed a solution and built a working prototype."

While the students seem to benefit from the experience, Blikstein's Makers-in-Residence project, now in its third year, is above all about education research. He is conducting ongoing studies to measure how students' experience in the FabLab improves their understanding of and self-efficacy around science and math.

His team has collected video, questionnaire and survey results, and even data about the students' pupil dilation and skin conductivity, which are both related to emotional states that can either facilitate or hinder learning.

The Summit and Everest students are the sixth long-term group to come through the lab, and with each visit, Blikstein's research group further tunes its curriculum and gathers more data.

For this particular student group, Week One was an introduction to essential tools, including design software and the laser cutter. Week Two was a tutorial in fundamental hydraulics and mechanics, with students building robotic arms from medical tubing, syringes and gears fabricated on the laser cutter. Week Three found the students building their own laptops using Raspberry Pi microcomputers, Linux machines about the size of a pack of cards. The final week was spent developing a videogame on the new laptops.

In May, during the second four-week session, the students will be expected to become autonomous operators. The projects in the second session will culminate in a final design challenge to solve real-world problems, such as water conservation or new tools for teaching primary school math.

Stoddard already noticed how different it is from regular school. "You have to be comfortable with problem-solving and taking on challenges of different types," he said. "You're not just given instructions and do what you're told."

So far Blikstein's research suggests that success has more to do with a student's attitude than previous technical prowess. "Our goal is to first instill kids to be risk-takers, to believe in their own capabilities, even if they don't have technical knowledge," he said. "It all starts with making them aware that they already know a lot about how to make things. Some work with their parents in construction or carpentry, but they do not see those activities as 'school stuff.' Here we are re-intellectualizing the shop class – that's the key."

Blikstein's work particularly focuses on students from under-represented groups in STEM careers. His interviews indicate that it changes their perspectives. "Many of the students reported that they learned how not to quit," he said. "They told us that in school they used to give up when they didn't see where things were going. During the workshop, they saw the point in persisting because they could envision their own project completed."

The National Science Foundation and the Lemann Foundation are funding the research.


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