Inside the High School’s New Fab Lab
“You’re going to need some graph paper, a ruler with the cork back, and a 45-degree triangle,” art teacher Christine Enos declares to her first-period class.
The students shuffle around the room to gather the required materials and figure out who needs to share which items before returning to their stools at a series of art tables arranged in an open rectangle.
“Alright, we have our tools out and we have an idea.”
“What I am going to show you guys today is how to make an orthographic drawing [front, top, and side],” said Enos. “You will have to do this for your shelter project and you might want to do this for a few specific items in your project.”
Through a series of questions, Enos reviews elements of scale, venturing into mathematical calculations, geometry, and technical drawing. She coaches the students through the front and top renderings of two-dimensional views of a lamp. But once the students begin drawing the side view, the importance of translating flat drawings into a three-dimensional object with proper proportions becomes clear.
As part of a project that asked the students to pair up and design a shelter, the students will make orthographic drawings with the understanding that they are critical in translating information not only to each other as designers but to others as well.
This is just one exercise in Hopkinton High School’s new Fab Lab: 3D Design course where students learn principles of art and design in conjunction with science and engineering. It is the high school’s latest STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) effort, and it is inspired by similar work in digital fabrication technologies developed at local higher education institutions like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rhode Island School of Design. Recently, the school has increased its STEAM offerings through collaborations among the Art, Engineering, and Technology departments.
Developing an idea and then producing it is at the core of the fab lab student experience. The emphasis of the class is squarely on process, as students are challenged to capture their first idea or concept and then collaborate with peers in a creative laboratory environment in order to develop the initial ideas in depth. Student and teacher collaboration drives the course working together to tackle design problems using a new type of thought process to create their designs.
“When students design things that are three-dimensional, it is an important part of the learning process to physically be able to put things together,” explained Enos. “So they understand things like physics, building materials and their properties – how they all function together.”
With her background as a furniture designer, Enos has spent her entire career seeking opportunities for students to make tangible pieces that exceed the requirements of just creating a sculpture. While Hopkinton High School’s art department has a long tradition of success—dozens of students earn awards for their work each year — ceramics was the only course affording students a chance to create three-dimensional pieces. The focus of the department heavily favored two-dimensional work. Enos seized an opportunity to propose her idea for the fab lab class.
The fab lab course champions the idea of experimentation. Enos recently completed graduate work at Rhode Island School of Design where she gained experience with the digital fabrication technologies available at the school. While there, Enos realized, “It was a natural step for using technology and hand-building or construction in a course. In fab lab, that is what our students do. It is very experimental. I like the idea of fab lab because it opens up the possibility of the types of projects students can do.”
In the course, Enos strives to expand the possibilities for students, integrating multiple subjects and helping students make connections, literally and figuratively. By moving from STEM to STEAM, deliberately including art widens the scope of direct applications students can make to other subjects and classes. Projects often involve mathematics, physics, and chemistry, sometimes biology, in addition to design, aesthetics, engineering, technology, and construction. Students gain a real sense of how what they build connects to the real world.
“Whenever you get involved with three-dimensional designing and building, you are thinking in a different way,” Enos said. “Three-dimensional design requires a different approach to problem solving. In this course we want students to have more autonomy with their ideas and consider many different aspects of the design process. For a lot of the students, this is the first time they have ever designed something and then put it together. Many students have little exposure to this kind of process and approach to constructing things.”
“To come up with your own idea and make it a tangible and maybe functional thing, existing the way that you envisioned it. That is really important,” Enos explained.
Freshman Sara Weissinger confirmed this notion when reflecting on previous work from the course, “Our first project we worked on, we made a prototype out of clay and it wasn’t very strong. It broke multiple times but because we had multiple materials to choose from we could find something that worked. It is about making ideas and being creative.”
Another key feature of the course involves the introduction of technology, exposing students to the latest tools that are being used for fabrication in industries like science, robotics, architecture, engineering, and industrial design.
“Things like the 3D printer and laser cutter bridge to so many career paths,” Enos explained. “We are infusing the idea of technology in combination with hands-on building because it exposes kids to what they might see in future careers.”
Senior Jade Poovakad chose the fab lab course for the novelty and the direct relation to what she hopes to study at university. “I am going into interior design and architecture in college and I was interested in making things by hand,” she said. “The school hasn’t had something like this before, a fabrication class. So it was something cool and different.”
Senior Declan Curry’s interest was initially more focused on the technology tools but expanded. “I was always interested in the 3D printing aspect and wanted to see how to make 3D printed stuff for myself,” he said. “I also like how the class incorporates art and expression and the freedom we get in the class. I feel like we are doing more stuff, like solving problems.”
The allure of the 3D printer also caught freshman Melinda Dyan’s attention. “I really wanted to take an art class and I saw a 3D printer on a field trip last year and I was really fascinated by that,” she said. “I thought we would be 3D printing whole things and making cool sculptures but we only really print components and the rest of the materials include paper, cardboard, and other things. They are easier than using the 3D printer. So there are different things to work with which is good. We have different options. So if one thing doesn’t work we can use something else.”
Students have noted that the class is not exactly what they expected. “It is different than I expected,” said Poovakad. “It’s more directed towards specific design problems. We’re working on more with movement, shelter, and protection. I thought it would be less specific. I still love it. It is very interactive. We’re designing with other people. So we get to see what other people do too.”
The fab lab greatly benefited from grant funding from the Hopkinton Education Foundation. A grant supplied seed money for startup equipment and tools to ensure a rich student experience and exposure to some current fabrication technology in 2016.