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Opening of FabLab marks new Stanford-Thailand partnership

January 24, 2013
By Sandy Barron
Paulo Blikstein and Paron Isarena (Photo credit: Suksapattana Foundation)
Paulo Blikstein and Paron Isarena (Photo credit: Suksapattana Foundation)
Paulo Blikstein and Thai educators have launched a partnership to advance a new approach to hands-on learning in science and engineering.

Bangkok – For years, students at the Darunsikkhalai School outside Bangkok have started each day with exercises in Buddhist mindfulness meditation. And now they follow these age-old practices by learning in a cutting edge digital fabrication workshop, where they can use advanced tools to build whatever they imagine.

The new FabLab@School was officially unveiled last week, as part of a three-day celebration of hands-on learning. It’s the brainchild of Paulo Blikstein, assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, who is at the forefront of a movement to improve the teaching of science, engineering and math by enabling students to use high-tech equipment — 3D printers and laser cutters, among other machines — to learn by making, creating and collaborating.

“This will provide Thai students with access to technologies that open up new learning possibilities,” said Paron Israsena, the Darunsikkhalai School’s founder and a leading Thai industrialist and philanthropist. “They are going to thrive on a modern technological laboratory where they can learn, create and produce stuff in three dimensions.”

And at the same time, Blikstein and Stanford researchers can study how such tools affect student achievement and how to best use them to improve learning.

The lab’s debut marks a new collaboration between Stanford Graduate School of Education and leading educators in Thailand. At last week's symposium, which featured opening remarks from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, there was the official announcement of a five-year $1.1 million agreement centered largely on the FabLab@School initiative for secondary school learners, which is based at Blikstein’s lab at Stanford GSE and is conducting research worldwide on how this approach affects the learning of science, engineering and mathematics. The deal involves a partnership between Stanford and three leading Thai institutions:  the funder and lead partner, the Suksapattana Foundation chaired by Paron; the Darunsikkhalai School for Innovative Learning; and the faculty of engineering at Chiang Mai University, a leading higher-education institution in the country.

It includes funding for one Thai graduate student per year to study in the Learning, Design and Technology Masters Program at Stanford. It also supports research by Stanford postdoctoral scholars to measure how effectively the lab is helping students to learn at the Darunsikkhalai School and similar facilities.

“A FabLab is a very special place in a school,” Blikstein told the gathering of some 250 Thai education policy makers and teachers at the 1st Thailand Constructionism Symposium, which ran from 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.”

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 in K-12 schools, creating 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,” he said.

What a difference four years can make.  The lab in Thailand is the fourth one Blikstein has established — he launched a Moscow FabLab in 2010 and another at the Castilleja School in Palo Alto in 2011 in addition to his first at Stanford — and he said that he is now fielding requests from around the world to open new ones. He envisions supporting a network of labs that would also include schools in Europe, Africa and Latin America.  

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. One project last year involved creating an electronics language game for native English speakers to learn correct Spanish pronunciation. The game was created by two Latino students who didn’t understand why they were required to learn perfect English while Americans could freely talk in bad Spanish with no consequences, Blikstein said.

“It’s about making school a place for ideas, sometimes unusual, amazing ideas that adults will never have,” said Blikstein. “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”

Students at the brand new Bangkok facility will work with its laser cutters, 3D printer, 3D milling machine and robotics while looking out on panoramic views of the Thai capital’s downtown high-rises and hundreds of square miles of industrial and residential hinterland.

For Paron, 86, the former head of the Siam Cement Group, one of the largest companies in Thailand, the Darunskikkhalai School he founded in 2000 on a suburban technology university campus is a proving-ground to show education policy makers the value of nurturing innovation.

‘At the school, we do ‘micro’. But we’re thinking ‘macro’,’ he said. ‘If we get good results, we’ll build up trust. Then the wider society will see that the way we do things is better.’

He said that Blikstein’s and Stanford’s research expertise will help to document the effects of the school’s hands-on learning approach over the period of the agreement, called the Candlelight Project.

The deal will be a “two-way street,” with Thailand offering Stanford researchers opportunities and funding for collaboration on real-world case studies, said Arnan Sipitakiat of the Learning Innovations Laboratory at the engineering faculty of Chiang Mai University. His research focuses on designing technologically rich environments that open up new ways for children to experience and learn, and he has also collaborated with Paron’s foundation on technology-based community development.

“We’ve been working for years with a mountain-area village community that has seen amazing progress making check-dams to keep the water in the forest and supply the village during the dry season. From just tens of dams built by students at the start, there are now around 4,000. But it’s not really known whether that’s an optimal number of dams. It’s possible that some of the new research Paulo’s developing about computer modelling at Stanford might be used to explore that with the students at the village, and to use sensors to measure how the dams are working,” said Arnan.

The Suksapattana Foundation began piloting rural projects and backing the Darunsikkhalai School as part of an initiative that started in 1997 with the MIT Media Lab. That collaboration, called Project Lighthouse, set out to harness and nurture human ingenuity in different Thai contexts by implementing key ideas from constructionism, the education theory developed by MIT professor Seymour Papert, which has also inspired Blikstein’s work.

The learning by doing approach has keen resonances in mainly Buddhist Thailand, Paron believes. “Being mindful, working in the now, learning from your own direct experience: these are core ideas of Buddhism,” he said.

So while Blikstein’s initiatives are all about helping students to envision things that have never existed, Thai learners will get there with the help of deep-rooted traditions. The new FabLab@School in Bangkok has a “Blue Room” in which students can meditate and reflect, as an aid to creativity.

 “On this project, we’re embarking on something entirely modern and new,” said Paron. “But you could also say we’re following the very first graduate of our methods: the Buddha, 2,500 years ago.”

Sandy Barron is a writer based in Thailand.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra welcomes Paulo Blikstein at the opening of an education conference on Jan. 15 in Bangkok, featuring the signing of a five-year research agreement between Thailand and Stanford and the launch of the newest Stanford-led FabLab@school project. Also at the opening are, second left, Paron Israsena, chair of the Suksapattana Foundation, and, 3rd left, Phongthep Thepkanjana, deputy prime minister and education minister. (Photo credit: Suksapattana Foundation)