We are using cookies to give a better service experience. By using our services you agree to use cookies. Read more

All articles

Fabricating Change in Mental Wellness

Addressing social and emotional needs through project-based learning and digital fabrication.

Students diagnosed with mental health conditions design, build, prototype, and learn at Intermediate Unit 1 Educational Campus at Colonial, an alternative education school. The collaborative environment combined with a project-based curriculum increases participation, improves engagement, and decreases disruption.



HundrED has selected this innovation to

Pittsburgh, USA

Web presence






December 2018
I have been working in the IU1 Fab Lab with emotional support students for the past two years. I frequently see the students in the classroom and lab, and there is a noticeable positive difference in students both academically and behaviorally. I am proud to say that I have yet to have any behavior issues while working in the lab!

About the innovation

How does digital fabrication impact students with mental health diagnoses?

Learning is defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, but what is not defined is that everyone learns in their own unique way. For students diagnosed with mental health needs this is especially true, and often times it is the small changes or opportunities that can have a positive impact on their learning experience.

Through the introduction of digital fabrication to students with mental health needs in our campus school, IU1 has seen amazing results. Student disruptions have decreased, creativity and engagement has increased, collaboration and social skills have improved, and participation in active group therapy has increased. These results are not only within the lab setting but have begun to transfer over into the classroom as well. Learning through digital fabrication not only works for students with mental health needs, but provides an innovative  approach to facilitating learning for these students, as it reduces behavioral issues and gives students an environment where they can thrive academically

Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1) serves 25 school districts in Southwestern Pennsylvania (USA) and operates four campus schools for students with alternative or special education needs. Recognizing the need for a more innovative approach in learning, IU1 installed a digital fabrication lab, or Fab Lab, at one of the alternative and special education campuses serving students in K-12. The IU1 Fab Lab is a technical platform for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, workforce development, and business idea prototyping. Students have the opportunity to explore the entire engineering design process in authentic and real world contexts through tools that enable them to go from concept to drawing, models to prototype, and redesign to final product.  

The main goal of the lab is to provide an opportunity for students who learn in a different manner with a student-centered collaborative learning environment. Inside of the Fab Lab you can find maker materials of all sorts, from pipe cleaners to vinyl cutters, markers to laser cutters, screen printing to CNC machines, and much more. Students in special education, alternative, and therapeutic emotional support (students with mental health diagnoses) attend classes daily in the Fab Lab, working with the Fab Lab Teacher, social workers, and therapists to create unique and custom projects. It did not take long before IU1 realized just how big of an impact digital fabrication would have on the students we serve. 

IU1 students can suffer from many mental health conditions ranging from ADHD, mood disorders, bipolar, autism, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, and PTSD. Many may think, how can you let these students around tools that may cause harm or could be damaged? However, within the Fab Lab you would never know they have mental health needs. The IU1 Fab Lab provides these students with a hands-on collaborative and educational setting, where they can develop social skills, express their creativity, and engage in a meaningful manner. All social workers and therapists have been trained on the tools and equipment and group therapy is provided within this classroom setting. 

Everyone learns differently, and the IU1 Fab Lab provides an opportunity to students to focus on their own mental wellness in an innovative approach to hands-on, personalized learning. Students are able to grow and succeed in their endeavors within the classroom environment, using the skills and knowledge they have gained through their experiences in the Fab Lab to effectively and successfully support their mental health needs.

The IU1 Fab Lab was created through a partnership with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, Chevron, and the Fab Foundation.

Impact & scalability

Academy review results
High Impact
Low Scalability
High Impact
High Scalability
Low Impact
Low Scalability
Low Impact
High Scalability
Read more about our selection process


Three Levels of Making
There are many levels of projects that are typically done in a Fab Lab or makerspace. The IU1 Fab Lab curriculum includes hands-on fabrication projects related to science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) concepts. The curriculum is customized according to the students learning level and needs. As students learn to use the materials, tools, equipment, and software the projects become more complex. Examples include:   The first level of projects serve to familiarize the students with tools or materials in the space, resulting in a personal project for the students to take home. (personalized ruler, LED light, multimedia artwork, pipe-cleaner figures, etc.) The second level students design and build a project that will enhance their classroom or school environment. (school signs, etc.) The third level of making involves partnering with local community organizations, creating something for the community at large. (awards, murals, etc.) Pictured above awards for the "What's cool about Manufacturing Video Contest" for Catalyst Connection at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA.We have asked students about their learning experiences in the Fab Lab and how through these experiences and lessons they have grown. "I like the fact that you always can build amazing things with the help of your peers if you work together. You are never alone and always have help either from the teacher or a peer. Even though we all have our differences, when we are in the lab, we can work together and get things done. When I am in the Fab Lab I can think of new things that can help the world become a better place. It allows me to be able to express myself through my very own designs. I enjoy the entire class from brainstorming, to making prototypes, to my final project." (IU1 Colonial Campus Student, Senior)For sample lessons, go to https://www.iu1.org/fablab/curriculum
Inside the IU1 Fab Lab
A Fab Lab consists of a suite of digital fabrication and rapid prototyping machines, including a large computer numerical control (CNC) router (the ShopBot), a vinyl cutter, a laser engraver, an electronics work bench, a 3D printer, and the accompanying computers and software for design, programming, and machine communications. This equipment allows students to use computer-aided design to make almost anything they can imagine. Fab Labs across the world share the same foundation of machines and processes and are linked through video conferencing and online tools.https://www.iu1.org/fablab/inside
Behavioral Case Study #2
Alias: Leo, Grade 7 Leo was referred for special education at a young age due to his behavioral needs. He was referred to the alternative placement program at IU1's Colonial Campus in Comprehensive Therapeutic Emotional Support (CTES).His teacher reports the following description of problem behavior:Yelling and swearing at staff Refusing to follow directions/complete tasks Leaving classroom Punching walls/desks Function of Behavior – Gain Adult/Peer Attention, Avoid TaskAs you can see from the diagram above, Leo was written up 7 times in the last month in his traditional classroom (chart on the left), and 15 times total during the school year. During his instructional time in the Fab Lab he was written up 1 time during the school year (see chart on the right). Right click the image and choose "Open image in a new tab" to see a full-size version of the diagram.This data was collected through the Chartlytics program under the direction of project coordinator Stephanie Hoesly, IU1 Training & Consultation: Autism/Behavior, E-Color Facilitator (G/B), Chartlytics Consultant.
Behavioral Case Study #1
Alias : Mario, Grade 3, Age 9 Mario was referred for special education in his home district (1st grade) as he was behind in academics and demonstrating behavioral issues. He was referred to the alternative placement program at IU1's Colonial Campus in Comprehensive Therapeutic Emotional Support (CTES).His teacher reported the following descriptions of problem behavior: Punching Kicking Spitting Leaving Classroom Yelling racial slurs, swearing, explicit sexual language Lying Refusal to complete tasks Function of Behavior – Gain attention from staff/peers, Escape or Postpone Demand As you can see from the diagram above, there were 13 student incident reports from his traditional classroom during the school year (chart on the left), and 0 student incident reports from instructional time in Fab Lab space (chart on the right). Right click the image and choose "Open image in a new tab" to see a full-size version of the diagram.  This data was collected through the Chartlytics program under the direction of project coordinator Stephanie Hoesly, IU1 Training & Consultation: Autism/Behavior, E-Color Facilitator (G/B), Chartlytics Consultant.
2018 USA Science & Engineering Festival
Eight students, 4 alternative and 4 therapeutic emotional support, from the IU1 Educational Campus at Colonial attended the 2018 USA Science and Engineering Festival to showcase their digital fabrication skills and knowledge in the Chevron STEM Zone for over 60,000 plus attendees. They even got to kick off the ceremonies with Blair Blackwell from Chevron! 
IU1 Colonial aims to expand fab lab curriculum school-wide
Digital Fabrication Curriculum
IU1 Fab Lab Promotional Video
What is a Fab Lab?
State education secretary talks policy in Cal visit
PA Education Sec. visits IU1 Fab Lab
Education Update - Innovation Incubator - Intermediate Unit 1
Check out the feature on the IU1 Fab Labs, marked as one of the Pennsylvania Education Departments Innovation Incubators, watch the video and see our lab in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iigQDy8mq1c&feature=share
FabLabs Are Showing That Student Makers Have Many Faces
Check out the IU1 Fab Labs feature in Scientific American: FabLabs Are Showing That Student Makers Have Many Faces. Read more here: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/budding-scientist/fablabs-are-showing-that-student-makers-have-many-faces/
3 lessons on innovating in PBL
Check out the IU1 article featured in eSchool News Blog "3 lessons on innovating in PBL." Check out this great article about IU1, the Fab Lab and our approach through project based learning (PBL)! Read more here: https://www.eschoolnews.com/2018/05/10/3-lessons-on-innovating-in-pbl/

Implementation steps

Involve Educators and Administrators

When introducing the initiative, it is important to first gain the support from all involved, including teachers, therapists, social workers, and administration. Begin by introducing the initiative and the changes that will be happening to show how their support will be integral in the program’s success. 

It is beneficial to develop an internal support team comprised of teachers, administration and support staff. This team will be essential in the success of the day to day activities and operations. Once the team is selected, establish regular meetings, which can be quarterly or monthly depending on need, to create a line of communication and build a strong support system. (See attached model.)

Adapt the Environment

Create a welcoming and collaborative environment, both physical and social, to allow students to feel comfortable in participating in classes, communicating with social workers or therapists, and expressing their creativity. A welcoming physical environment that is flexible and open enhances creativity and engagement. A collaborative and creative social environment allows students to feel safe and welcome. Ways to begin adapting the environment may include: introducing flexible seating; installing writable surfaces; introducing work stations for studying, creating, working, and displaying work throughout the space; creating material bins and storage areas; and installing appropriate technology and digital fabrication equipment (if desired). Equipment used in our lab can be found at IU1 Fab Lab or Fab Foundation

Develop Curriculum Scope and Sequence

Once the space is established with the appropriate tools or equipment, develop a corresponding curriculum. This curriculum can be designed according to student needs and learning level. As there are many levels of projects that are typically done in a makerspace, students will first learn to use the material or equipment, which then leads up to more complex projects. Examples include: projects that serve to familiarize the students with tools or materials in the space, resulting in a personal project for the students to take home; design and build a project that will enhance their classroom or school environment; and partnering with local community organizations, creating something for the community at large.

Key factors to keep in mind when developing the curriculum are when the lessons will be offered throughout the school year and who will be teaching. The curriculum may be integrated with other subject areas, for example History lesson on the Wright Brothers, students design and construct their own airplanes. This allows the digital fabrication teacher to work together with other content area teachers to create a robust curriculum.

(See included sample lesson on solar power.)

Train Teachers and Staff

Train teachers and support staff on how to effectively and successfully use the space and any equipment/software. Through training, teachers will be prepared to assist the lead teacher and or conduct student instruction within the space and operate the needed equipment/software. Teachers will be equipped with a general understanding and knowledge to collaborate and assist the lead teacher when conducting lessons in the space. Should the lead teacher be absent, this allows the day to day schedule to proceed smoothly.  

Establish a Schedule

To ensure that all students have access to the space in a timely and efficient manner, a schedule will need to be established. Classes within the space are 45 minutes long and are offered on a rotating schedule throughout the year. Students in the lower grade levels are scheduled within the lab two days per week year-round and students in higher grade levels are scheduled three days a week year-round. Social workers and school therapists are also able to plan accordingly as to their students' mental health needs once a schedule is in place.  

The schedule allows the teachers to plan and request all materials needed for their lessons. This has proven to be an effective model in getting all students access to the space, as well as giving them exposure to new materials and equipment. 

Welcome and Introduce the Students

Now that the space is set up, the curriculum created, teachers are trained, and the schedule is ready, students are ready to be welcomed to the space! Conducting an open house to allow parents, students, and the community come in is a great way to kick-off the initiative. This allows parents to see what their students will be doing, it gives students the opportunity to explore more freely, and invites the community in to learn more about opportunities in their area. 

Spread of the innovation

loading map...