Kindergarten Kids Can Now Be Taught STEM With 3D Printing And Laser Cutters

At the Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM) near San Francisco, Jack Stabenow, a 5 year old kid, climbed a step stool, a few weeks ago, in order to look into a machine which is designed to cut cardboard using a high-powered laser. A wobbly building design finger-drawn by Jack on a tablet computer was followed by red beam accurately. Construction of a building that could be able of standing up to the wind of a nearby table fan was the target in Jack’s mind.

Jack rushed to the assembly area once the cardboard was cut. There were about two dozen other kids of his age who were struggling over tottering, however well-taped, creations. If these first attempts toppled in the breeze, that was to be expected. In fact, back-to-the-drawing-board was kind of the point.

The cycle of design, prototype, test, and redesign which is the trademark of engineering was being taught to the kids.

A prototype was also being examined by the museum staffers. First early childhood “fab lab” (fabrication laboratory) was launched in America last month. It contains a collection of digitally controlled fabrication machinery, like 3D printers, laser cutters, and milling machines.

Fab labs are being opened in well-off high schools and middle schools. However, Discovery Museum wishes to take the fab lab experience to kids as young as three and also wants to propagate this opportunity beyond the affluent territories. Fab labs is considered by leaders there as a natural extension of their hands-on STEM programs, and a way to instil creativity instead of passive “screen time” into children’s early encounters with technology.

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At the base of the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marin Headlands, the museum occupies many squat yellow-brick buildings, the former barracks of historic Fort Baker. A fusion of programming for the general public and for school classes from pre-K to third grade is being offered by it. This implies that the staff is accustomed with scepticism about technology in early childhood education. In fact, they say they share it.

The vice president of museum’s education strategy, Elizabeth Rood told:

“We are not the people pushing for everything tech, and the earlier the better. In fact, we had absolutely no technology at our museum until the Fab Lab launched.”

Even though the museum turned out to be STEM-focused many years ago, a low-tech mind-set spreads through its exhibits. In order to create “renewable energy machines”, kids search the bins of egg cartons, foil, and other recycled materials in one of the room, while young visitors learn about earthquakes and construct cardboard structures to test on a battery-powered “shake table” in another.

Kids create enthusiastic, bright art with paint whipped outside, however not mixed by salad spinners. They also exercise hammering nails by putting on safety goggles and build ramshackle forts with soft, oversized blue blocks.

Rood also expressed, “We want to be thoughtful about introducing technology to the analogue sort of play that kids engage in so naturally and beautifully and get so much out of. We need to ask, what’s the added value?”

In January 2015, when Jan Morrison, president and CEO of TIES (Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM), invited BADM staff along with other early childhood experts, software developers, and representatives from MIT’s Fab Foundation to meet in Washington, D.C., it was one of the crucial questions.

Morrison questioned the group if it was possible for the fab labs to bring together the ambition of early technology literacy with the aspiration of allowing the young kids to play and explore with hands-on learning. According to Morrison, “In talking to both worlds, it seemed that there was no interface.”

The BADM contingent, after a discussion session of two days, was persuaded that that an early childhood fab lab was both worthwhile and feasible, and they volunteered to pilot one and to share what they learned via the Fab Foundation.

As per Rood, “In the fab lab concept, we saw this amazing confluence of creativity and STEM that could open up the black box of all this technology around us. While classroom technology usually takes something real and digitizes it, a fab lab turns a digital creation back into something real. A fab lab, for instance, can turn abstract ideas, such as concave versus convex, an object’s centre of gravity or the volume of a cube, into something physical and tactile. So it’s no longer abstract. It helps kids get it and understand the concepts they’re taught in a much deeper way.”

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While piloting fab lab programming, fab labs have taken a methodology to heart at the Discovery Museum which is promoting a readiness to repeatedly test and improve one’s ideas.

Karen Flynn, the museum’s CEO, said while joking, “What comes before beta? That’s kind of where we are.”

The museum’s Fab Lab activities fit on a spectrum from “light to deep touch,” as Flynn described. In early May, about 1,200 kids and 400 parents and teachers from disadvantaged schools in the Bay Area spent a day exploring the museum during a Google-sponsored field trip where on the light touch end of the scale, for instance, was a car-building activity (using variously shaped wooden wheels pre-made at the laser cutter). Although not being able to design the wheels themselves, the kids were able to see the laser cutter making batches of wheels. Nevertheless, they tested their cars on ramps and measured the distances rolled.

For the summer camp of the museum, deeper touch Fab Lab activities are scheduled. The camp-goers will wander the museum in search of ways to make the exhibits, operations or architecture better and then design solutions they can prototype in the Fab Lab.

Public workshops like the wind-resistant building challenge fall somewhere in the middle of the touch depth spectrum. Kids will create balsa wood gliders by selecting different shapes for wings and fuselages in another prearranged Fab Lab workshop.

These 90-minute, one-time workshop sessions basically max out at 15 kids who are preregistered online. The day of Jack Stabenow’s visit was an exception—a special Fab Lab sneak-peek for museum member families. That day there were almost twice the usual number of kids who were waiting at the laser cutter and then lingering again to assess their buildings. Also, the workshop was only of an hour that day. Despite the fact that fab labs are prized for stepping up the prototyping process, the museum staffers have found out that there’s a lot of downtime, which isn’t easy for little kids.

Alexis Weiner, the museum’s art and digital design assistant manager, who created the “building in the wind” workshop said, “There’s this lag time that doesn’t happen when they’re not using technology.” Therefore, the Fab Lab saves a lot of pre-cut parts and materials on the assembly table which can be utilized by kids who do not have any tolerance for the computer-aided design or by those, like Jack, who want to strengthen their creations without re-joining the line at the laser cutter.

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The first squiggly design by Jack induced so many laser cuts that it destroyed his cardboard, except for a jagged sort of arch. He fixed the ends of the arch into foam foundations and called it the “dragon building.” Jack propped it up with stick buttresses after that structure failed the wind test which worked.

Another challenge has been finding computer-aided design software suitable for kindergartners. A touch-screen interface is a must, for instance. As a stopgap, the Discovery Museum Fab Lab uses a touch-screen version of Adobe Illustrator, which has both free-drawing and shape tools.

The associate director of museum experience, Amy Eisenmann said, “The kids have really surprised me with how well they work with Illustrator. Still, it’s not made for them. It’s a professional designer’s tool.”

Eisenmann discussed this with developers at Adobe, headquartered in nearby San Jose, that a more kid-friendly version of Illustrator should be produced. In the meantime, the Discovery Museum affiliated with FableVision, a Boston-based educational media company, in order to modify their design software, Maker Studio, which is meant for grades three to eight at present.

Discovery Museum intends to fetch in a Silhouette printer, the go-to fabrication machine for Maker Studio which is a digital cutter of paper and cardstock, into its Fab Lab rotation. What paper lacks in glamour it makes up for in being “familiar, friendly, accessible, and really fast,” says the software designer who created Maker Studio, Peggy Healy Stearns.

In contrast to ten times that for a laser cutter or 3D printer, the price of a digital paper cutters is just about $200. This is vital for the museum as it follows its goal of Fab Lab outreach beyond wealthy schools. Sara Norris, the museum’s associate director of STEM and school partnerships made a statement, “We want to make this technology accessible to kids and teachers regardless of their background. The 3D printers and laser cutters are very cool. But we also want kids and teachers to engage with technology that would be possible to bring into their own classroom.”

The two 3D printers of the museum appear to be very expensive as they are very slow for little kids. It takes hours to print anything sizeable. Therefore, the printers have been relegated to showpieces for the time being. They are still running almost constantly, layering the plastic creations of in-house designer Tristan Schoening, including oversized nuts and bolts and a prosthetic hand with fully articulated fingers.

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Schoening told, “A big part of my job is showing off the equipment’s capabilities, to get kids excited, but also show parents and teachers that these things are incredibly useful and not just for trinkets.”

For now, the school programs of the museum must support the science standards taught by busy elementary school teachers. For instance, the Fab Lab’s shadow-puppet challenge uses laser-cut acrylics to support classroom lessons about transparent, translucent, and opaque. Meanwhile, the school Fab Lab sessions will be one-time class visits to the museum, but they may soon include more intensive, three-day projects like those used by the museum’s other STEM programs, in which a day at the museum is sandwiched between two visits to a school by museum staff.

In order to motivate the teachers to get more comfortable with the software and tools, the museum will soon offer Fab Lab-focused professional development in the hope of creating more hands-on tech in early education. They will also be able to share their lesson plans online.

The museum staff plans on launching the Fab Lab to education researchers from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and Mills College in Oakland, with whom they often partner as part of the museum’s Centre for Childhood Creativity, so that they can evaluate what kids are actually learning as they design and create. An internal survey is also being done to assess the changes made by Fab Lab technology regarding the parental engagement with kids compared to low-tech programs. The non-profit education researcher WestEd will be used to evaluate the workshops and school programs. The Fab Lab facilitators expect to collect and analyse enough data via surveys, observations and interviews within a year to guide Fab Lab improvements and start sharing lessons learned.

Certain places are not waiting on the research, such as the Hardesty Centre for Fab Lab in Tulsa declared earlier this year that it intends on piloting an early childhood program with 100 students from kindergarten through fourth grade. Also, the Children’s Museum of Cleveland plans on putting fab lab abilities into a mobile technology lab that will hit city streets this fall. The Discovery Museum plans on unveiling its own mobile lab next year, which will bring its hands-on engineering activities to less-advantaged communities in the Bay Area. In the meantime, staffers will start up the Fab Lab’s school programs this fall.

BADM’s Norris stated:

“It’s very exciting to be on the forefront of this movement in early childhood and to work with people who are open to accepting whatever we find about what works and doesn’t work. We’re learning all the time. We’re teaching design thinking, but I feel like we’re living it as well.”

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