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

Fabricating Change in Mental Wellness

Grindstone, Pennsylvania, USA
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.

How does digital fabrication impact students with mental health diagnoses?

Kevin McKee, Fab Lab Teacher at Intermediate Unit 1
“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! ”

Kevin McKee, Fab Lab Teacher at Intermediate Unit 1

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.

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Innovation Overview
5 - 18
Age Group
1 369
Tips for implementation
Support from administration, staff, school board, as well as school therapists, social workers, and teachers; Space for students to make and create; Maker materials or consumables; Digital Fabrication equipment and software (optional)
Contact information

See this innovation in action

Three Levels of Making
Inside the IU1 Fab Lab
Behavioral Case Study #2
Behavioral Case Study #1
2018 USA Science & Engineering Festival
IU1 Colonial aims to expand fab lab curriculum school-wide
IU1 Fab Lab Promotional Video
State education secretary talks policy in Cal visit


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Involve Educators and Administrators
Introduce the initiative to everyone that will be involved.
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Adapt the Environment
Create a welcoming and collaborative environment for students.
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Develop Curriculum Scope and Sequence
Develop the curriculum, this curriculum can be designed according to student needs and learning level.
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Train Teachers and Staff
Train teachers and support staff on how to effectively and successfully use the space, equipment, and software.
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Establish a Schedule
A schedule will need to be established to ensure all students have access to the space.
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Welcome and Introduce the Students
Once everything is complete, students are ready to be welcomed to the space!
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