U.Va. One of 10 Winners in National Digital Media and Learning Competition

May 13, 2010 — The digital fabricator, a key feature of the Children's Engineering Initiative  at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, is at the center of its winning entry in the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition.

Curry was one of 10 winners in the competition, cosponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, or HASTAC.

The Curry School of Education is the first in the country to use digital fabrication technology in curriculum development. Its Fab@School initiative was designated by the sponsors as the "most novel use of new media in support of learning."

The three organizations announced the Fab@School initiative as the winner of its "21st Century Learning Lab Designers" competition May 12 as part of the festivities of the first-ever National Lab Day. Throughout this week, members of President Obama's Cabinet and other senior White House officials joined teachers and volunteers in events to promote innovative initiatives to increase excellence in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – education. National Lab Day, a grassroots partnership between science and engineering societies and educators, was launched in response to Obama's call to raise American students to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade.

The Fab@School initiative, spearheaded by U.Va. education professor Glen Bull, is a laboratory for the classroom that allows students to create three-dimensional objects – everything from model skyscrapers and bridges to plants and animals – using a digital fabricator. Students design the objects on a computer and then send it to the fabricator to "print." When finished, a student has in physical form what they created on the screen.

"This technology will serve as the infrastructure to fundamentally change how STEM subjects are being introduced in elementary school and how teachers are trained in teaching these subjects," Bull said. "Our goal is to expose young children to tangible concepts of science, technology, engineering and math at this early age, increasing their potential to succeed in these areas later."

The Digital Media and Learning Competition award provides $185,000 in seed funding to allow the Curry School, the Cornell College of Engineering and the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, or SITE, to continue developing specific areas of the Children's Engineering Initiative through the Fab@School project, including hardware, curriculum and the digital fabrication library.

Curry will partner with Cornell to purchase the hardware necessary to develop the Fab@School 3-D fabricator. Hod Lipson, director of the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory, will be at the helm of the hardware development.

The award will also support an effort led by Curry assistant professor Robert Berry to integrate digital fabrication into the M-Cubed workshop, a summer math program for 75 African-American middle school boys; and to integrate digital fabrication and children's engineering into the Curry School's elementary education curriculum, including elementary math education courses and related instructional technology courses taken by elementary education students.

Finally, the award will support development of a national Digital Fabrication Library to share digital fabrication designs and associated curriculum, as well as teachers' supports. Gary Marks, executive director of SITE, will take the lead on this.

The Curry School has also secured two corporate partners to join the Children's Engineering Initiative. FableVision and Software Mackiev will develop a fourth component – digital fabrication software for elementary students – as a matching contribution to the Digital Media and Learning Competition award.

The goal of both the Fab@School laboratory and the Children's Engineering Initiative is to fundamentally change how the STEM disciplines are approached in the nation's elementary classrooms, as well as supporting elementary teachers in their preparation to facilitate student learning and development in the STEM disciplines.

"The success of this idea in such a prestigious competition is evidence of the combination of creativity and rigor behind these plans to develop digital fabrication as a pathway for children's engineering," Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School, said. "This project truly represents a collaborative effort that brings math, technology, curriculum development and teacher preparation together to address a critical educational and social problem – the learning of analysis, problem-solving, math and science in the context of engineering.   To be doing this work in elementary education is indeed a breakthrough."

The extent to which digital fabrication will change society in the 21st century was the topic of a cover article in the February issue of Wired magazine.

"Enabling elementary students to gain early access to the tools and skills that will put them at the forefront of this revolution seems a necessary step in revitalizing American competitiveness within the STEM disciplines," wrote one commenter on U.Va.'s Fab@School website.[

An element of the competition was the collection of comments about each project. The Fab@School laboratory received nearly 200 comments from around the world, including reactions from Hong Kong, Portugal, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, The Netherlands, Austria, Lithuania, Italy and the United States.