Connections, Present and Past

Educator Training and Innovation Stations equip teachers to bring together culture and technology in the classroom

Tatitlek Community School Head Teacher Jed Palmer gives a fellow educator pointers on a Fab Lab project.

The next time Spring Hill Elementary teacher Crystal Brown needs to troubleshoot her classroom’s new 3D printer, she’ll be able to make a call to Tatitlek and ask Head Teacher Jed Palmer for assistance. In August, both teachers attending an Educator Training at the Fab Lab designed especially for teachers working with CITC’s Innovation Stations at select schools.

“That’s been the exciting part of this training: Getting teachers together so they have that connection and build on what they’ve learned together,” said Fab Lab Trainer Sam Goodrich.

Sharing What They’ve Learned

Through an Alaska Native Education Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the Fab Lab placed Innovation Stations in seven schools, including Spring Hill, Dena’ina, and Baxter Elementary Schools in Anchorage, as well as elementary schools in Tatitlek, Naknek, Knik, and Tyonek. An additional three schools will receive Innovation Stations this year.

At this session of the Educator Training, some teachers practiced their troubleshooting skills by creating 3D topographical models of Alaskan places important to them. Other educators made jigsaw puzzles using the Fab Lab’s laser cutters.

Equipped with a “fab kit” that includes a laser cutter, 3D printer, and a tool chest fully stocked with power tools and hand tools, each Innovation Station also comes with a year’s worth of culturally informed curricula designed by the Fab Lab’s Culturally Based Instruction Unit Developer Joni Earp. But if everything goes according to plan, future curricula won’t come entirely from the Fab Lab — it will come from fellow teachers.

“My big win here is that everyone has everyone else’s phone number,” said Fab Lab Instructor Deco Goodman. “They’ve become a cohort who can support each other and share lesson plans. Whether it’s Jed in Tatitlek or Esther in Naknek, we’ve got lots of teachers who, because of this program, are making their own curricula now.”

Learning Curve

Fab Lab Trainer Sam Goodrich provides assistance to one of the attendees of an Educator Training this summer.

Just after Christmas break, Jed Palmer received the first pieces of his Innovation Station. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fab Lab couldn’t send trainers to his school in Tatitlek to help him set it up.

“It was kind of a blessing,” Jed said, “because I was forced to dive into it — and I included the kids in that learning process.”

This year, Jed’s fifth- through twelfth-grade students used what they learned setting up their equipment to design and create 3D nameplates depicting the names they use in their Sugt’stun language class.

“I left it pretty open-ended, and we discussed the things that could go wrong in their designs, and how to mitigate against those things,” Jed said.

Things going wrong is an important part of working with Innovation Stations, he added. “I think the utility of any project they do is that problem-solving strategy. They may never need to create a 3D nameplate in real life, but whatever job they go into is going to draw on their ability to troubleshoot. I feel like that’s a skill they’re going to apply later on in life.”

Cultural Connection

Teachers who attended the Educator Training learned how to use 3D printers, laser cutters, and other equipment while creating projects for culturally-based curricula, like this topographical model of Eklutna Lake.

The connection the Innovation Stations create goes beyond teachers supporting each other and their students, Sam pointed out.

“Coming out of 2020, we were able to provide a place for teachers in outlying communities that had been otherwise closed off due to the pandemic,” he said. “Teachers in Naknek are doing these projects and can reach out to Tyonek, or to us, and that’s helped ease their way back into normalcy.”

While the Fab Lab is seemingly all about modernization, the real fun comes, said Deco, when teachers and CITC staff can find ways to connect technology with projects that are applicable to people’s lives.

“It’s a fun challenge to incorporate our elders into projects and challenging them to get their hands on technology that’s unfamiliar.”

Fab Labs, Innovation Stations, new technology — education has come a long way, Sam said. Deco brings up the recent awareness of unmarked Indigenous graves at a residential school in Canada: “There’s so much trauma that’s happened in the name of education; now it’s time to rethink our approach. It’s exciting to not continue the ‘universalizing’ of everything and instead celebrate diversity.

“The Innovation Stations allow us to do that,” he added. “To go in, learn about the community, and share the tools we have to give people more angles through which to access their own stories and traditions.”

Learn more about CITC’s Fab Lab here. Or explore our other youth programs online.