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Lessons in letting go - releasing student energy speeds creation and use of our art and innovation lab

  • University
  • Technology

Pioneer John Nordell, who was short on time, enlisted his students to put the art and innovation lab together. The result was one of the best experiences he has had as an educator.

I had secured a room and an equipment budget to set up an art and innovation lab at American International College where I teach. The only thing missing was time. My regular professorial duties kept me from unpacking the boxes of gear and, possibly, my unfamiliarity with the technologies fueled unconscious procrastinatory fires. However, the unused and unexplored potential nagged at me.


A student working on a video about the visual and digital arts program I direct suggested that an operational art and innovation lab would make for good visuals. Then the thought struck me: why not enlist students to put the lab together? Have them set up the technology? What more could I ask for in terms of hands-on active learning and real-world experience?

The magic of action manifested as eager and enthusiastic students jumped right in and got things rolling. All the gear was unpacked and ready in minutes. Students in digital photography attached the structure sensor scanner to an iPad. We were ready to rock.

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This rush of activity took place towards the end of last spring semester and these fabrication technologies were not yet officially part of any courses. However, I gave the option to my digital photography students to do 3D photography (3D scanning), for one of their final projects.

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What followed next was one of my best experiences as an educator, but I did not do anything. As our art and innovation lab was new, we only had one set of gear. Students took it upon themselves to develop a schedule of times for each student to use the scanner and then allocated the hours necessary on the 3D printer to meet the semester deadlines. Talk about collaboration and time management! It is hard to teach these concepts from a textbook.

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Inspired by attending a NERCOMP conference on spaces for making, I had set in motion the structure of the art and innovation lab, operating under the idea of, “If you build it, they will come.” However, as noted previously, I am not yet an expert with these technologies. Fortunately, students continued to take the lead once they started scanning, as they built on my introduction to the resources to expand and refine techniques. I played the twin roles of encouraging facilitator and resourceful guide.

One student wanted to “photograph” crossed field hockey sticks in 3D. Unlike a 2D photograph, you need to see all sides of your subject. She wound up suspending the sticks from the ceiling using transparent fishing line.

Field Hockey by Katelynn

There was such a buzz of excitement as students made scans and the 3D printer began churning out prints. Faculty, students and administrators walking past the art and innovation lab, intrigued by the glowing, buzzing and whirring printer, stopped in to find out what was going on.

Many mistakes were made. Moments of triumph followed moments of frustration. Trails were blazed. Camaraderie developed. Laughter ensued. Challenges were overcome. Consumers became producers. Sounds like learning to me.

I guess those seasoned with using these creative tools will notice some flaws in the scans and prints. You have to start somewhere! That is the point I am trying to make: Just start!

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students create art
Watch the video

Students created different traveling tokens that represent positive social ideas. The tokens are shared from person to person to spread messages such as peace, infinite love, happiness or calm. When one receives a token, they keep it for a day, take a photo and post it with #aictt. They then pass it on the next day to build community.

3d printing tokens
Watch the video

If I had waited for the perfect moment to set up our art and innovation lab, we might still have a roomful of boxes. However, the process of just diving in (taking action, thank you Mr. Goethe) afforded students deep learning in many areas beyond the technologies. I discovered as an educator that by letting go of control of the process and sharing classroom power with students, fruitful pedagogical experiences can emerge.

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