Curry Takes Engineering Projects into Local Elementary Classrooms

students discussing digitally fabricated itemsThrough a pilot project conducted this spring by the Curry School of Education, some local elementary students have decided that “Fab@School” refers to both the new digital fabricators in their classrooms and to the fabulous fun they had using them.

The Fab@School project, which encourages engineering design projects aided by computer-controlled die cutters, is led by Glen Bull, professor of instructional technology, and Robert Berry, associate professor of elementary education.

Using equipment and software donated to six fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms at Cale and Crozet elementary schools, students designed objects in two dimensions on computers using software called FabLab ModelMaker. A simple click then sent their designs to a digital fabricator, where they were printed on cardstock, cut out, and scored or perforated for folding so students could manipulate the designs into 3D objects.

Bull explained that digital fabrication provides an engaging entry point for integrating more math, engineering, science and technology in elementary schools.

“The 2D fabricators are similar to the mechanical die-cutting systems traditionally found in schools, but use a computer to control the cutting head in place of mechanical dies,” he said. Although use of mechanical die cutters has often been limited to teachers, this project put control of the equipment in students’ hands.

“The low skill level required for children to create 3D designs in the software and the inexpensive cost of the fabricators are both real advantages here,” said Willy Kjellstrom, a doctoral student in the Curry School’s information technology program. Kjellstrom worked with several teachers to develop design projects and collect research data on student learning. “Make no mistake,” he said, “the students were learning, and the teachers were able to uncover previously unseen misconceptions in students’ thinking about geometry, shapes and visualization.”

Tammy ScotTammy Scot, a fourth-grade teacher at Crozet Elementary, agreed. Her students used the fabrication systems to design and build a model skate park with the help of information technology doctoral student Monty Jones. During the semester-long project, her students explored symmetry, angles, inclines and proportion, as well as force, motion and energy, she said. The fabricator allowed students to revise unworkable designs quickly and easily. She also took advantage of numerous opportunities to draw out students’ thinking by asking questions such as, “Why doesn’t that work?,” “What changes do you need to make?” and “Why do you think that will work better?”

Ten-year-old Emily Wolf said that making mistakes was one of her favorite aspects of the project, as she worked to translate a flat shape she designed on the computer into a model skate ramp made from folded cardstock.

“When you messed up it felt good to you, because then you know something more,” she said. “In the beginning, you really didn’t know what was going to happen, but then you know ‘Oh, this is going to happen, so I know to avoid that and do something else.’”

students work on designs on the computerAt Cale Elementary, fifth-grade teacher Stephanie Passman and information technology doctoral student Jake Cohen worked with students to make simple electrical circuits with switches.

“From the moment I heard pilot classrooms were needed, I began begging my principal and gifted resource teacher to choose my students as a pilot class,” Passman said. “More than anything, I wanted my diverse group of homeroom students to apply their mathematical skills to a real-world situation. I knew that even those who struggle the most could find ways to design, manipulate, create and test using the digital fabrication software in conjunction with the engineering process.”

Her predictions turned out to be right on target. “I will never forget the first kid who was able to make a square pyramid in the introductory project,” she said. “He was the last kid I expected to do it, one who normally shuts down easily when a challenge is presented and who requires goading and one-on-one support to stay focused. He is also intelligent, capable and creative, all of which came through during our fabrication projects.”

Later, Cale principal Lisa Jones met with the boy looking for ways to help him stay engaged in school, Passman said. “When I asked him what he cares about, “Jones reported to her after their meeting, “the only thing he mentioned was digital fabrication.”

Stephanie Passman, Phyllis Davidson, Bonnie Podraza, and Chelsey LundgrenThese classroom projects using digital fabricators in support of typical math and science curriculum were one phase of a larger initiative in which the Curry School is collaborating with other universities, nonprofit partners and for-profit corporations. They include Cornell University, Hofstra University, the University of North Texas, the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, FableVision, Software MacKiev and Aspex Software.

The Curry research team also includes assistant professor Jennifer Chiu and information technology doctoral students Daniel Tillman, Erika Carson and Eric Yoder.

“This year we focused on the logistics of integrating digital fabricators in elementary classrooms,” Bull said. “We found the teachers and students enjoyed the process of learning through making objects with paper like platonic solids, gliders, LED cards and working speakers.”

In the upcoming school year, his team will build on what they learned, he said, to better align the process of creation and construction with the mathematics instructional standards addressing patterns, functions and algebra and the science standards addressing force, motion and energy.

Paula White and Shelby BowenOther activities of the Fab@School initiative include developing additional curriculum and software for school use, building a collaborative design online space and library, refining a 3D fabricator for schools and adding fabrication units to teacher education and professional development. These activities are funded by an Institute for Education Sciences Small Business Innovation Research Grant, a National Science Foundation Innovative Technologies Grant, a Motorola Innovation Generation Grant and a MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Award.

“This initiative will, for the first time, create an infrastructure that makes digital fabrication practical and scalable in elementary classrooms, with an eventual goal of scaling through secondary school,” Bull said. “Students will have the motivating and satisfying experience of taking their concepts from mind’s eye to physical form.”

– by Lynn Bell

Group photo captions:

Crozet Elementary students Ricky Weikle, William Campbell, and Emily Wolf compare their model skateboard ramps.

Students at Cale Elementary work on 2D designs before sending them to the fabricator.

Teachers from Cale Elementary School who participated in the pilot study: Stephanie Passman, Phyllis Davidson, Bonnie Podraza, and Chelsey Lundgren

Teacher Paula White and Shelby Bowen from Crozet Elementary School also participated in the pilot.