Brad Seehafer / Stoughton Area School District
Student Justin Vinge uses the ShopBot, a computer-controlled milling machine.
High school shop classes that help students gain technical skills are nothing new, but what about a course called "How to Make (Almost) Anything" that actually means it?
That will be the centerpiece of a new $206,000 "fab lab" at Stoughton High School, only the second public high school in the nation to have such a facility. Though the lab is already functional, formal classes will debut there this fall.
Fab lab is short for fabrication laboratory. The concept was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms. Stoughton resident Mike Connor, who works for the Cummins Foundation, visited the fab lab at Mahtomedi High School in Minnesota and suggested that Stoughton High install one. Then he helped the school land a $100,000 grant for the project. Community partners and individuals supplied another $106,000, which helps to cover equipment and installation, online class at MIT for three Stoughton teachers, and lab renovations.
Unlike old-style shop class, where students were trained to use handheld or power tools, the fab lab uses digital tools. There's a computer-controlled laser cutter; a large milling machine; a vinyl cutter; a smaller, precision milling machine; and a 3D printer.
Fabrication materials include vinyl, cardboard, acrylic sheets, thin wood, copper circuitry, ABS plastic, foam, wood, wax and circuit board.
School officials are particularly optimistic about the fab lab's potential to prepare aspiring engineers. The engineering field has continued to grow despite the turbulent economy, and it pays well. According to National Science Foundation, "half of the workers in [science and engineering] occupations earned $73,290 or more in 2010, more than double the median earnings ($33,840) of the total U.S. workforce."
Neil Gershenfeld, the father of the fab lab movement and director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, characterizes the personal fabrication movement in a TED Talk as "products for a market of one person."
"Rather than buying a product that has been mass produced and hoping your needs fit in with the 'average' needs of everyone, you can make an individualized product for yourself," explains Fran Kelley, who teaches physics at Stoughton High.
Having access to what math teacher Chris Wiemer calls a "prototyping facility" means that imagination, not technology, "is the limiting factor here."
That's exciting, says Wiemer, "because kids are in some ways much better at imagining than we [adults] are."
Inside the lab
The lab, which took about six months to set up, is well illuminated with large windows, bright indoor lights and white walls.
Much like any high school lab, it has a ventilation system, high ceilings and work islands. Furniture is still on order. The large and expensive digital equipment is set up along the room's perimeter.
Three teachers have been putting in about 20 hours a week learning how to use the fab lab. Wiemer, Kelley and architectural drafting teacher Brad Seehafer are all enrolled in the same course they will be teaching in the fall: "How to Make (Almost) Anything." The course is taught by the Center for Bits and Atoms, and the teachers take it online for $5,000 each.
The "Fab Academy" class is conducted on a large HD screen inside the lab that enables multi-person video chats with fab labs worldwide. Assignments aim to give students experience with all the machines, as well as the digital design component. One week's assignment was simply to "make something big."
The nearly infinite possibilities of the fab lab can be both liberating and crippling, the teachers say. Though it is permissible and often instructive to turn in assignments that don't work out, the Stoughton teachers don't like that option. "Hence, we're in the lab for hours on the weekends," says Kelley.
Among other things, the teachers have made a full-sized chair out of wood without using adhesives or fasteners; a white plastic model of an ancient citadel; and an 18-inch 3D cardboard replica of a wing of Stoughton High School.
Failures included a plastic tray for holding nuts and bolts that was only semi-functional and far from attractive.
But in the hands of the most adept fabricators, the products can be both practical and whimsical.
MIT students created a pair of chess boards that communicate remotely across the world, and a "portable space for screaming" called a ScreamBody that enables stressed individuals to scream in public spaces and release the recording later at a time and place of their choosing.
The Fab Lab Charter, which hangs on a wall in the lab, requires that everything students create in the lab be shared with the fab lab community. Since all designs must be publicly accessible, any designs created in a fab lab should be replicable. In production and design, this is called "open source" - that is, production and design methods aren't kept secret, so others can build upon the same knowledge.
Brian Shimon, associate principal of Stoughton High, hopes the access to shared knowledge and the hands-on component will foster a sense of excitement in the lab. More than 160 students are already registered for next year's classes.
Shimon does not think they will be disappointed. "High school students are always saying 'I'm bored,'" he says. "I dare you to be bored in here."