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

Fabricating Change in Mental Wellness

location_on Jefferson Township, United States
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.
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


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Pittsburgh, USA

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Innovation Overview

5 - 18
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1 611
Updated on September 17th, 2021
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.


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See this innovation in action

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
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.
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:
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:
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:


Achievements & Awards

May 2019
Pittsburgh, USA
May 2019
December 2018
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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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