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A College-Prep, Independent Day
School for Grades 8-12


From the Academic Dean: The Design Shop
Posted 02/13/2015 12:54AM

Last week, the York Design Shop received its final inspection from the county and officially opened for use on campus. While some refer to such facilities as FabLabs or MakerSpaces, York opted on a name that signals the combinative opportunity of Design Thinking and hands-on, learning by doing. As a modern facility for creative problem solving, our shop offers three connected rooms, which each support collaborative designing, tinkering, making, and fabrication.  This week, I’d like to discuss the philosophy behind the Design Shop, the making and fabricating movement, and some of the key features of the space.

The roots of Fab Lab movement can be traced to Seymour Papert, who champions constructionist learning, “a belief that children learn most effectively when they build artifacts and share with peers” and helped establish MIT’s Media Lab. In more recent years, FabLabs garnered much media attention owing to Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (an interdisciplinary initiative exploring the boundary between computer science and physical science). Its core purpose is to investigate and promote how to turn data into things, and things into data. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Gershenfeld reflects on the core principles of digital fabrication:

The digitization of material is not a new idea. It is four billion years old, going back to the evolutionary age of the ribosome, the protein that makes proteins. Humans are full of molecular machinery, from the motors that move our muscles to the sensors in our eyes. The ribosome builds all that machinery out of a microscopic version of LEGO pieces, amino acids, of which there are 22 different kinds. The sequence for assembling the amino acids is stored in DNA and is sent to the ribosome in another protein called messenger RNA. The code does not just describe the protein to be manufactured; it becomes the new protein. Labs like mine are now developing 3-D assemblers (rather than printers) that can build structures in the same way as the ribosome. The assemblers will be able to both add and remove parts from a discrete set.

But MIT can’t have all the fun, right?.  At Stanford, Professor Paulo Blikstein has founded a new type of FabLab especially designed for school and children, with several special characteristics:

  • A carefully-designed teacher preparation program. Full integration with school curricula, including a special focus on the connection with the disciplines (sciences, math,engineering)

  • Activities designed for children together with teacher guides, allowing students to engage in cutting-edge scientific investigation and engineering projects.

  • Easy to use, age-appropriate robotics and sensing equipment.

  • A fully-developed research program, with custom-made impact measures and learning metrics especially designed for digital fabrication and project-based environments.

  • Lower cost of implementation and ownership, intensive use of re-purposed and low-cost materials.

In line with the vision of these FabLabs, one room in York’s Design Shop is named Fabrication. Here we offer access to a 50 watt Epilog HELIX Laser Cutter as well as a MakerBot Replica 2X. Where the 3D printer allows students to participate in rapid prototyping, turning bits to atoms, the laser cutter allows for cutting in two dimensions and assembly in three dimensions. Next door to the Fabrication room, we find the Robotics room, where mechatronics (mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, control systems, and computer engineering) occurs. Here, tools, such as a lathe, a drill press, a bandsaw, and a vertical saw allow York’s robotics team to design and build highly functional robots for First Robotics Competition.

Why are these learning experiences critical? As Sandy Speicher who leads the Education practice at IDEO explains, “We live in an age of increased complexity and face global challenges at an unprecedented scale. The nature of connectivity, interactivity, and information is changing at lightning speed. We need to enable a generation of leaders who believe they can make a difference in the world around them, because we need this generation to build new systems and rebuild declining ones. We need them to be great leaders, great collaborators, great communicators, and great innovators.” York agrees with Speicher. Here, we seek students’ future-readiness.

That readiness grows ever more essential as we enter what is now being referred to as the Second Machine Age. The term recognizes the increasing automatization of cognitive tasks. Think of Turbo Tax as a prime example. Human tax-preparation experts disrupted by a software program, which offers an efficient user-experience, compliance, satisfaction and all at a fraction of the cost.  In The Second Machine Age the authors argue “today artificially intelligent machines can make better decisions than humans.” In the first machine age, the Industrial Revolution, machines complemented human labour. Today, software-driven machines function as substitutes, not complements. That is made possible by technological advances the authors describe as “exponential, digital and combinatorial.”

Some of you may be thinking the Design Shop sounds very techy and geeky and specialized. It is, but it is also an open, accessible space for all sorts of creativity and innovation. As we help York students build their foundation of core academic knowledge, skills, and confidence as well as life-long character and non-cognitive skills, we also seek ways for students to develop abilities to lead and create. From designing better tools and systems to dealing with civic issues, we need our youth to know that they can empathetically and intelligently shape the world. We need to help them develop the tools to create change.

Thus the Design Shop’s main room is a large open space with modular, collaborative furniture. Here, opportunities in design thinking, a methodology for creative and human-centered problem solving that empowers students to collaborate across disciplines and tackle the authentic challenges while developing leadership skills, is supported.

Whether it be 9th grade TIL class or Service Learning projects students’ engagement with Design Thinking aids their exposure to and internalization of the following critical skills

  • Empathizing: understanding the needs of those one designs for.

  • Defining: framing problems as opportunities for creative solutions.

  • Ideating: generating a range of possible solutions.

  • Prototyping: communicating the core elements of solutions to others.

  • Testing: learning what works and doesn’t work to improve solutions.

The Design Shop offers students a space to become innovators and entrepreneurs. Just as important, the the facility aids the building of fluid connections across the curriculum. Those connections are not just secondary benefits of a forward thinking school, or what some might call curricular moon-shots.  Those crucial connections represent the value-added of an exceptional education.

Welcome to York, the Design Shop is open. Please come in. 
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