Why and how to integrate a digital fabrication laboratory in a college?
Are you thinking of implanting a digital fabrication laboratory (fab lab) in your college? This article is for you!
Pedagogical relevance of the digital fabrication laboratories
For a few years, the pedagogical practices have increasingly turned toward experiential learning, where the students are invited to create solutions to a problem that will have been submitted to them in the context of a class or a project.
The project-based approach has the benefits of bringing the students to:
- mobilize their learnings
- create new knowledge through the implementation of an approach that will necessitate the development of disciplinary competences (through the manipulation of concepts) as well as transversal competences (because of the interactions necessary to the formatting of their creation)
- integrate those new learnings, since they are used in a concrete context, through living an experience. The memory of the information will be increased because of its association with the emotions lived throughout the process (joy, frustration, discouragement, etc.)
For some years, we have observed a convergence toward the desire to reappropriate the means of production because of environmental, economic, and social issues that threaten our society. That movement takes place in the fab labs. Depending on their capacity, those spaces are equipped with devices of a varying degree of sophistication and offer, through a pooling of the resources, an access to digital fabrication devices that would be otherwise inaccessible because of their high price.
Pictures of various fab labs, of their equipment, and of projects that can be realized by the students.
Winning conditions for a fab lab in a college
The richness of a fab lab rests primarily on the community that uses it. The maintenance of that community constitutes the main challenge to overcome by the manager of the laboratory. According to Laurence Martel, from the PolyFab, the fab lab of Polytechnique Montréal, the laboratory would benefit from the presence of a dedicated workshop facilitator who acts as a mentor for the users.
To encourage teachers to integrate fab labs in their pedagogical practice:
- Benoit Jobin from Maisonneuve College’s MakerSpace encourages a direct approach with the teachers, whom he invites to attend a conference with their students the make the potential of the available resources known.
- Serge Gagnier, from Sainte-Thérèse Academy’s Fab Lab AST, offers personalised trainings to the teachers to allow them to become familiar with the operation of the devices and to make them live positive experiences, in order for them to transfer those learnings in their pedagogical practice.
- Jasia Stuart from Concordia University’s Technology Sandbox found that her efforts to contact the teachers directly did not pay off as much as the influence of the students that frequent the Technology Sandbox and who, in turn, make their teachers discover the laboratory.
The realization of a pedagogical project in a fab lab will effectively open up disciplinary practices, confront them to other visions, and will enrich their understanding by the student. Opening the laboratory to the community will allows students to meet people with various skills and knowledge, and who are open to collaboration.
The same goes in a context where the laboratory is accessible to students from the school. The meetings between students from different disciplines often result in the realization of original projects. Jasia Stuart noted in her presentation that, although the arts and engineering students of Concordia University share the same building, the possibilities of meetings are almost nonexistent. However, when the students in those disciplines meet as part of a common project in the Technology Sandbox, they are often confronted in their certitudes and brought to question their approach.
A well-furnished toolbox
Although the laboratories offer a wide array of material resources (such a 3D printers), they are first and foremost at the service of creation. Nevertheless, we must remember that those new devices allows us to create objects that were often impossible to create before (such as mortise gears). The potential that the new materials associated to 3D printers offer constitutes a creative advantage. Finally, it is important to remember that those devices allow us to create products with the precision and speed that required the expertise of a master before.
It is by putting together the wealth of the human meeting and the creative potential of the technological devices made accessible that the students-users will have the possibility to realize creative solutions while making their disciplinary learnings more concrete. However, those realizations must be accomplished through a learning approach that deserves to be delineated. If you are a teacher who wants to bring your students to realize projects in a fab lab, I have written another text to share a concrete model for the pedagogical integration of a fab lab [in French].
About the author
Technopedagogical Advisor at Vitrine Technologie-Éducation in 2018-2019, Jean-Pierre Dufresne previously taught in high school for over 15 years. He promotes the developments of digital citizenship competences.