Fab Labs: A Platform for STEAM Education

Apr 29, 2015 Education

Thanks to grants from Chevron, there are new Fab Labs in the region – at an Intermediate Unit 1 school in Fayette County and at the Carnegie Science Center.

A Fab Lab is an advanced digital fabrication suite of computer-controlled manufacturing machines. Designing and building projects in Fab Labs, users develop the systems thinking, problem solving and analytical skills needed to innovate. Originally designed for communities as prototyping platforms for local entrepreneurship, Fab Labs are increasingly being adopted by schools as platforms for project-based, hands-on STEM education.

Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1)

Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1), a regional educational agency that strives to provide educational support throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, was one of 10 recipients throughout the country to receive a Fab Lab grant from Chevron. The grant equates to $1.2 million over three years to design, build and implement a Fab Lab and the corresponding curriculum.

According to Don Martin, Assistant Executive Director of IU1, the decision to pursue the grant was a logical next step following the implementation of several STEM initiatives in response to the job opportunities in the oil and gas industry.

"This is really an obligation for us with our K-12 school districts and with our adult community," says Martin. "We have a high rate of unemployment and a significant dropout rate. The Fab Labs are a perfect match for retraining and assisting our adult population."

Martin says that during the 13-month application process, IU1 did a lot of research that made it clear that the Fab Lab would be for the entire community.

"Initially, we saw a lot of out of state license plates at oil and gas sites because we weren't prepared," points out Martin. "We learned that we need to prepare our students as well as adults. A key component of our decision making process was that this wasn't going to be just for students, but for the entire community."

The Fab Lab is located in the Colonial School in Brownsville, Fayette County. IU1 is currently looking at funding for satellite sites at career tech schools in Washington and Green Counties.

"We want to have sites throughout our three county area that infuse this curriculum in our region."

Carnegie Science Center

At the Carnegie Science Center, the Chevron grant is funding a hybrid Fab Lab with both onsite and mobile facilities for educational purposes as well as outreach and visitors.

While there is a big focus on kids at the Carnegie Science Center, the target audience for the Fab Lab is much broader.

"Our niche is zero-to-maker," says Jason Brown, Director of Science and Education at Carnegie Science Center. "We will provide enough support for anyone who is interested, so they feel encouraged to try their hand at designing and creating something."

Brown says the Fab Lab is a great opportunity for the Science Center to provide opportunities to the general public as well support for teachers and students, so they can work on things that the traditional school curriculum doesn't have time to include.

"Carnegie Science Center has a strong mission to provide STEM education and encourage young people to consider STEM-related careers," explains Brown. "We are very focused on helping students develop 21st century skills, and at the same time, supporting schools. It's hard for schools to do everything students need while making sure they are prepared for tests."

According to Brown, STEM education is one of the most important factors for the future of this region and the nation as a whole.

"STEM education is not just about taking another math class or science class," explains Brown. "It's about innovation, collaborative team work, utilizing technology to solve problems, and process thinking – being able to get to get from point A to point Z without being told any of the middle steps and being able to develop them on your own."

The Fab Lab is the perfect platform for developing the skills need for STEM jobs.

"STEM jobs can be nurses, technicians in an automated factory, personal fabricators, entrepreneurs, engineers and more," points out Brown. "All of these jobs require not only content knowledge, but also working with other people and solving problems."