Bay Area Discovery Museum Opens Children’s Lab




In conjunction with its 25th anniversary at Fort Baker in Sausalito, the Bay Area Discovery Museum opened the nation’s first Early Childhood Fab Lab this year.

Fab Labs are high-tech makerspaces for children ages 3 to 10 to build science, technology, engineering and math skills through hands-on learning.

About 65 percent of today’s children will have jobs that do not exist yet, according to the MacArthur Foundation, a large, private philanthropic organization focused on supporting creativity and world peace.

By opening the Early Childhood Fab Lab, the Bay Area Discovery Museum’s goal is to provide children with the core skills to be successful in a rapidly changing world. It’s a dedicated, ongoing exhibit with equipment such as tablets with age-appropriate software, 3D printers, vinyl cutters, laser cutters, table-top CNC routers for digital fabrication, along with tools to build understanding of underlying processes such as circuitry, programming and coding.

The lab is currently in its prototype phase. The museum has been inviting schools and families to try out the Fab Lab with workshops, says Elizabeth Rood, the museum’s vice president of education strategy and director of the Center for Childhood Creativity. The goal is to have the Early Childhood Fab Lab open on more of a consistent basis by summer, she says.

“It’s very exciting. We’re marrying high tech with kids’ natural inclination to build, to take things apart and to understand how things work,” Rood says.

It is part of the museum’s new strategic plan and will be the foundation for an international, scalable model that will be replicated through learning networks managed by the Fab Foundation and Teaching Institute for Excellence in S.T.E.M. (TIES).

Museum officials also hope it will be a resource for children from low-income neighborhoods to gain familiarity, hands-on experience and interest in emerging technologies that can help their success in school and beyond.

“We’re seeing that high tech maker spaces are opening at private schools, but not all schools have the money to do this,” Rood says. “We are deeply concerned that this is going to be another academic divide.”

This all came about after the Bay Area Discovery Museum was invited by TIES to discuss ideas for opening Early Childhood Fab Labs with a group of makers and software developers and people from the United States Department of Education and Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, Rood says.

There are schools that have Fab Labs, she says, but they are all middle school and up. There’s no high tech maker spaces for younger children.

After the meeting, Jan Morrison, founder, president and CEO of TIES, asked if Bay Area Discovery Museum would be interested in piloting the first Early Childhood Fab Lab. If all goes well, more such labs will open around the country. There’s also a mobile Early Childhood Fab Lab for preschools that’s being piloted in Cleveland, she says.

The Bay Area Discovery Museum is currently working with companies to design software for the lab that is easier for young children to use, Rood says. The products that are available now are often too complicated for younger ages, she says.

The main focus for Fab Labs, Morrison says, is to have places for kids to become digitally competent, but not just behind a computer screen. “We also want them to be designing and building. We want to bring the two together.”

Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.

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