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Helping Youth Make the Most of the Lab Experience

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

When I was in the right age range, let’s just say a few years ago, I was a Cub Scout. We had pinewood derby competitions back then and the pinewood derby for today’s Cub Scouts is alive and well. The cars are fashioned by the Scouts from small square blocks of wood. The Scout shapes it like a car using various saw cuts, rasping and sanding, then wheels are attached after paintingThe cars are raced by placing them on a downhill track, using gravity to see which one first reaches the finish line at the bottom. 

My dad helped me make my cars for each of two or three years as I remember. He seemed to strike a good balance of helping me with the more difficult parts but leaving most of the work, and learning, to me. One year when “Batman” was popular on television I had a friend that wanted his pinewood car to be a Batmobile. His dad helped him but ended up doing nearly all the work while my friend watched. Eventually, my friend got bored watching and went off on some other activity while his dad finished transforming his car into the Batmobile which won a prize for “coolest” design. I learned a lot, my friend not so much. Such is the activity of making; you learn the most when you are doing not watching. 

When we started doing youth Fab Lab “Boot Camps” in 2015, we felt like there weren’t enough of us to answer the young peoples’ questions quickly enough. We also found that many were afraid of failing, hesitant to try something new. We had to get them over that. What we found was that the scarcity of not having enough teachers to answer the questions instantly made some of the kids give up waiting and find their own answers, either through experimentation or Google or You Tube. 

For the third year this year, we will partner with the Southeast Kansas Education Cooperative, i.e. Greenbush for our week-long boot camps. This allows us to have more sessions, each with up to 24 participants instead of capping it off at 12 as we did the first two years. Even with the two Greenbush teachers, the kids still don’t get their questions answered immediately. Some give up on us and figure things out on their own or use the Internet. All in all, this scarcity contributes to greater learning. 

A few weeks ago we welcomed several home school families into the lab on Fridays to facilitate experiential Lab learning in conjunction with the parents’ lessons at home. We’re finding that some of the home school parents need to learn the same lessons about getting the most learning for youth from the Lab experience. Here are a few pointers we’ll be conveying to the home school parents. 

  • Let your student do most of the work. It’s ok for you to show them a few things, but they will learn the most by doing not watching you. Sometimes it’s difficult to watch them take so long to click the right buttons or do the right thing, but they are learning all the while. 

  • Don’t expect the projects, especially the first ones, to be perfect. The greatest learning comes from the process of making the project, not strictly the end result. You’ll notice, as have we, that the quality of the projects will increase dramatically over time. 

  • Demonstrate that it’s OK to go to Google or You Tube to find answers. While this kind of lookup may be “cheating” in some school activities, project-based learning moves into overdrive when you can get answers quickly by watching a how-to video for the task you need to learn. 

  • Start with simple projects that can be done quickly without a lot of frustration. That way, the building of creative confidence and start immediately and prepare the student for future challenges of more complex projects. 

  • Encourage your student to seek help from and offer help to other students. Like the Internet, this may be “cheating” in traditional school activities, in real life it is called collaboration and builds cohesive teams that can accomplish great things. 

  • Demonstrate with your student the art of cleaning up when finished and leaving the surroundings in better condition than when they arrived. 

Even though I’ve targeted this piece to be about youth in the Lab, these lessons learned really apply to all of us. We all have a young, eager student in us waiting to come to the Lab and experience the joy of learning by making.  

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at or Twitter @jimcorrellks.  

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