Looking to prepare students for STEAM careers, a Los Angeles school district is using a laser machine to create hands-on experiences and foster real-world problem-solving skills.
From Abstract to Understanding
When a seventh-grade girl uses a laser to build a full-size piece of furniture, science suddenly doesn’t seem quite so abstract to her. And when sixth-graders use a laser to engrave school award plaques, geometry starts to become relevant—even fun. That’s exactly the point behind a new hands-on engineering initiative at Lennox Public Schools, a Los Angeles-area district that uses an AP Lazer Machine, 3D printers, and other tools to provide students with the real-world experience of STEAM in action. “Lennox understands that education needs to be practical versus academic,” said David Strickler, of AP Lazer, which provided Lennox with its SN4024 laser machine. “Math and science are very academic, and you have to find different ways to show how they can be applied in the real world.”
“Lennox understands that education needs to be practical versus academic,” said David Strickler, of AP Lazer, which provided Lennox with its SN4024 laser machine. “Math and science are very academic, and you have to find different ways to show how they can be applied in the real world.”
New Ways to Teach STEAM
Finding new ways to teach STEAM subjects is particularly important at Lennox, a low-income district (96 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches) surrounded by aerospace giants such as SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. “We’re trying to give students the best possible path to success, and STEAM programs seem key to that,” said Alejandro Hernandez, an engineer at Lennox. “Seeing the kinds of jobs that are available here, it’s pretty clear we need to prepare our students to go into those fields.”
To accomplish this goal, Lennox has created a school of engineering inside its middle school. The new school, which launched last August, involves roughly a third of students in Grades 6 and 7, with plans to expand to Grade 8 next year. The school is staffed by four science teachers, four math teachers, and four social studies teachers. “Students cover the normal curriculum, but with a greater emphasis on project-based learning,” said Hernandez. “The engineering lab itself is structured as an elective that is paired with the science classes. It’s like a lab and a lecture in a college-level class.”
Project-Based Learning Approach
The concept of project-based learning lies at the heart of the school’s approach. To prepare themselves for this style of teaching, faculty attended training at the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the use of PBL in K-12 schools. AP Lazer provided on-site training on the use of the laser machine.
“Every customer needs training on how to run the machine, whether at basic or advanced levels, and across different applications,” said Strickler. “We focus mainly on video training—segments of 10-15 minutes—because it’s the easiest way to communicate technical topics.” 24/7 technical phone support, an online learning portal, and a three-year warranty also come with the machine.
Developing a Curriculum
Curriculum development for the laser machine is still in its early days, but Lennox plans to build its lessons around the engineering design process, analogous to the scientific method. “Our goal is for students to be able to identify real problems in their lives or in the community and use tools like the laser machine to solve those problems,” said Hernandez. “The laser machine and the 3D printers aren’t goals in themselves, but tools for other things. We’re really trying to teach students to solve problems for themselves.”
In the first part of the curriculum, students will learn the workflow needed to design simple two-dimensional products, such as engraved awards for the local science fair, using open-source software known as Inkscape. In the next step, students will transition to 3D CAD design. Lennox students already used Autodesk Inventor software in a 3D printing project earlier in the year. In this phase, they will apply what they learned to the laser machine.
“There’s a good degree of familiarity with Autodesk Inventor,” said Hernandez. “But I anticipate that it’ll take one to two weeks to uncover the differences between designing for a 3D printer and designing for a laser machine.”
Simple CAD Projects
For students without prior experience with 3D CAD, Strickler encourages schools to have them practice on existing models first. “The easiest thing to do with CAD is to import an existing 3D model and manipulate it,” he said, referring to free designs that are often available for download on vendor sites. “A student’s first project in CAD should be playing around with an existing model, resizing it, and then rendering it in physical form.”
In making the transition from designing for 3D printers to laser machines, Lennox students must first learn how to create the joints needed to assemble flat pieces into three-dimensional objects. “We’re going to have students design some kind of container—perhaps a box where they can store their school supplies,” said Hernandez. “Once those skills are acquired, we’re going to open it up a little bit more.”
The year-end goal is to have each student use the laser to make a full-size piece of furniture, such as a chair or table. First, students will prototype their designs by using the laser to cut cardboard sheets. Once the design is finalized, they will cut the full-size pieces from plywood sheets for assembly into the finished product. “We hope that students will be able to take their furniture home, or maybe we can even use their pieces in the school,” said Hernandez. “Most students are extremely excited about it.”