Local high schoolers gain design, engineering skills and ‘maker’ mindsets at Brown Design Workshop (2024)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Sure, they still use textbooks and pencils — but just as frequently, students from Blackstone Academy Charter School are now working with laser cutters, 3D printers, drills, saws and sanders.

That’s thanks to a new class called Makerlab, which is the result of a partnership between educators at the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, high school and Brown University students and staff at the Brown Design Workshop. The high-schoolers travel to Brown's 10,000-square-foot makerspace each week to transform ideas into creations, learning woodworking and metalworking along with design and engineering skills.

Blackstone Academy science teacher Aaron Weinblatt created the elective in 2022 to offer a creative complement to traditional science courses for students at the public high school, which serves more than 350 students from Pawtucket, Central Falls and Providence. Makerlab's project-based curriculum, developed with Brown engineering students, introduces fundamental concepts like structural integrity, material properties, prototyping and iteration. Immersed in hands-on design and engineering challenges, students gain resilience and problem-solving skills, Weinblatt said.

"Tools can be intimidating, and fixing, designing or making something can feel overwhelming,” Weinblatt said. “This class aims to empower students with the confidence to design, fix and make so they can see themselves as problem-solvers and makers. We want students to grasp the engineering design process, embrace iteration and balance goals with constraints. Building grit is also key. Trying, failing and adapting — that's real engineering in action and a profound life skill."

Aalyah Matos, a ninth-grader at Blackstone Academy, had little experience with tools but was astonished by how much she enjoyed the hands-on projects and how useful the skills she gained proved even in the short term.

"Before this class, I would have said I'm not into building things, but seeing these projects come together is fascinating," Matos said. "Plus, learning to use tools and machines like a drill press is so much fun — and it's something I'd never encounter normally. Now, if something breaks at home, I feel like I might actually be able to fix it myself."

Hands-on lessons in art, design and STEM

Around a dozen high-schoolers join Weinblatt and a team of Brown mentors every fall and spring in the student-run Brown Design Workshop. Starting with introductory woodworking and sheet metal workshops, they learn design basics, sketch ideas and master the safe use of tools to craft projects such as Pinewood Derby cars, birdhouses and towers. The class culminates in a final project that challenges students to combine their newfound skills to design and create functional items for the school. Past projects have included wood hall passes, props for drama classes, fidget toys for focused learning, storage bins and even gavels for mock trials.

Weinblatt said the elective caters to a diverse student body, often igniting an excitement for creation in students with a wide variety of interests.

"The class attracts a great mix of students," he said. "Some took a 3D printing class, loved it and want to explore it further. Others are drawn to engineering or are creative and see the art and design potential of building. There's even a spark of interest in the trades for some. It's a great way to expose students to different possibilities."

Local high schoolers gain design, engineering skills and ‘maker’ mindsets at Brown Design Workshop (4)

Louise Manfredi, who directs the Brown Design Workshop, says that early exposure to STEM can unlock a world of opportunities for kids. That's why since joining Brown last summer, Manfredi has been deepening the workshop's engagement locally, collaborating with schools to turn Brown's makerspace into a welcoming hub for local students to experiment, learn and create.

"My journey to where I am today likely began in my high school years," said Manfredi, an associate professor of the practice of engineering at Brown. "In the U.K., hands-on tech education is part of the standard curriculum, but in the U.S. that's not always the case. These experiences are crucial because they foster creativity and illuminate the intersection of art, design and STEM. Sharing these skills and opening doors to these spaces is how we get more kids to see themselves as engineers, inventors and makers."

Beyond partnerships with Blackstone Academy and other Providence-area schools, Manfredi aspires to create summer programs that welcome more middle and high schoolers to the makerspace. Brown's committed student body, she said, presents a unique advantage for realizing that vision — a pool of dedicated mentors.

"We have so many students at BDW who are incredibly passionate about teaching and sharing their knowledge,” Manfredi said. “It's like having a captive audience ready and eager to contribute. We're working to establish more mechanisms to facilitate this exchange and expand on these outreach initiatives."

Weinblatt said students from Brown’s School of Engineering have proven vital to the Makerlab course’s success.

"The class wouldn't be possible without the dedicated student volunteers at the BDW," he said. "With my teaching load, I wouldn't have time to prepare all the materials for each project. However, with this partnership, the Brown students and I can discuss the lessons beforehand, ensuring everything is ready when we arrive on campus. They invest significant time in the class, and it's a huge part of why it's been so successful."

Video: A look inside the Brown Design Workshop

The Brown Design Workshop is the University’s go-to makerspace where its members can use the vast array of tools and machines to create almost anything they dream up.

Take a look inside the Brown Design Workshop

The Brown students supporting Weinblatt's class work as monitors at the Brown Design Workshop. In this role, they oversee machine operations, equipment and activities in the makerspace. Weinblatt said their expertise with the space and tools and their grasp of advanced engineering concepts provide a distinctive learning opportunity for high-schoolers.

"There are many instances where students experiment, and I often reach my technical limits much faster than the Brown undergraduates,” Weinblatt said. “The Brown students are then not only teaching our students basics, like using a pull saw or a finger brake for sheet metal bending, but also guiding them in designing solutions and exploring tool and material options beyond what I or the students would have considered — it’s just as much a learning opportunity for me as it is the students.”

Bringing student ideas to life

Some of the Brown undergraduates who help facilitate the Makerlab class are engaged with Blackstone Academy in other ways, too. As they finished their final semester at Brown this spring, twins Benjamin and Joshua Phelps — who each earned a bachelor’s degree in design engineering and electrical engineering at Commencement in late May —served as mentors at the charter school to support a robotics class. With supplies donated by the Brown Design Workshop, the brothers led the students in creating a customized toy car as part of the Go Baby Go program, which gifts ride-on cars to kids with disabilities. The toy car was donated to a family in the school community this spring.

As the elective continues on Brown’s campus, Weinblatt is pushing to extend the class time within the parameters of Blackstone Academy’s school schedule.This would give students more than the current one-hour block,allowing them to delve deeper into projects. The popularity of the course is growing too, he said, with some of the high schoolers even opting to take the class for a second time.

Nuno Dosanjos, a ninth-grader at the school, said he enjoyed the class so much that he has plans to enroll again next year.

"Through this experience, I feel like a creative person," he said. "You walk in and have all these tools that can bring your ideas to life, and it's so much fun to make something that you've imagined."


Brown and Providence School of Engineering

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Local high schoolers gain design, engineering skills and ‘maker’ mindsets at Brown Design Workshop (2024)


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