FabLab goes to Thailand

Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra welcomes Paulo Blikstein at the opening of an education conference on Jan. 15 in Bangkok. (Photo credit: Suksapattana Foundation)

Stanford’s PAULO BLIKSTEIN received a warm welcome from Thailand’s Prime Minister YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA in Bangkok earlier this month to celebrate the opening of his latest educational FabLab.

Blikstein, assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), is at the forefront of a movement to improve the teaching of science, engineering and math by enabling students to use high-tech equipment – laser cutters, 3D printers, milling machines, robotics and other tools – to learn by making, creating and collaborating. The opening of the FabLab at the Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning follows Blikstein’s launching of labs in Moscow and at the Castilleja School in Palo Alto, along with establishing one at Stanford.

“A FabLab is a very special place in a school,” Blikstein told a gathering of some 250 Thai education policy makers and teachers at the 1st Thailand Constructionism Symposium, which ran Jan. 15-17. “It is a disruptive space – an invention lab, but also a science lab, a robotics club and a place for people to hang out and make stuff.”

In addition to talks by Blikstein and the prime minister, the three-day symposium featured the official signing of a partnership between the GSE and leading educational institutions in Thailand, made possible by a $1.1 million grant from the Suksapattana Foundation. Along with the new FabLab, the agreement includes fellowships for Thai graduate students to study in the GSE’s Learning, Design and Technology Master’s Program and support for Stanford postdoctoral scholars to conduct research on how the Thai FabLab is helping students to learn.

Blikstein emphasized that the key to FabLab’s success in schools is research that measures what works and what doesn’t and how to develop appropriate lesson plans.

NEIL GERSHENFELD of the MIT Media Lab developed the idea of a FabLab in the early 2000s, mainly as a way to foster entrepreneurship and product design in communities. Blikstein was a graduate student at MIT at that time. Upon his arrival at Stanford in 2008, Blikstein was the first to propose the idea of using these technologies in K-12 schools to create a new kind of lab, with its own particular architecture, materials and curricula, all specially designed for schools and children.

“Many people thought that I was crazy at the time – putting a laser cutter and a 3D printer in the hands of a 12-year-old,” Blikstein said. But to date, young learners in Blikstein’s labs have made such devices as their own optical microscopes to study biological specimens, showers that turn themselves off to save energy and a prize-winning robotic flute that can play simple Bach melodies.

Blikstein said that he is now fielding requests from around the world to open new FabLabs.

“It’s about making school a place for ideas – sometimes unusual, amazing ideas that adults will never have,” he said. “We want children to come to school thinking, ‘What am I going to invent today?’ They need to understand that they can express themselves through science, math and engineering – and not only memorize formulas.”

—SANDY BARRON, a writer based in Thailand