Mobile STEM Lab Brings Hands-On Learning to El Paso Schools

Students in rural El Paso County school districts don’t have access to makerspace tools. So, the county has launched a mobile STEM lab, where they can learn basic coding, use virtual reality headsets and build objects on a 3-D laser scanner.

by Molly Smith, El Paso Times / November 5, 2019
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(TNS) — Rounding up a group of students and busing them downtown for a field trip is no easy task, especially for districts on the outer edges of the county, which is why Fab Lab El Paso is bringing its makerspace to schools with the launch of its Mobile STEM Lab.

The mobile lab made its first trip Friday when it visited Montwood Middle School. Groups of students spent an hour learning basic coding on smartphones while others rotated between stations, using virtual reality headsets to experience riding a roller-coaster or watching a laser cutter create miniature moose – the school's mascot – out of cardboard. Others took three-dimensional "selfies" with a 3-D laser scanner.

Cathy Chen, co-founder and executive director of Fab Lab El Paso, likens the lab's makerspace to a playground.

"It's a place where you can experiment, it's a place where you can let your imagination run wild," she told a group of students, adding that inside of everyone is an inventor.

Chen's goal is to not only increase the number of local students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, but for more students to view themselves as proficient in both arts and humanities and science and technology. Students must be critical thinkers who know how to express themselves creatively, but also have the technical know-how to engage with and advance technology, she said. It is human's ability to be creative and imaginative that differentiates us from computers and robots, who can do calculations and computations much faster than we can.

Fab Lab volunteer Aleksya Aguirre, a 2011 Montwood High School grad who is an engineer at DISH Network in El Paso, helped students experience different environments through the virtual reality headsets.

Aguirre, who earned her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her master's degree in product development engineering from the University of Southern California, said many local students don't apply to these schools because "they think it's too hard or they really don't know too much about (engineering)."

"I see a lot of these kids and I used to be in their spot," she said. "I was here in the border, I'm Hispanic, I went to the same schools. If I can do it, they can do it; it's just a matter of getting them exposed to all these things and allowing them access to these resources."

In addition to introducing students to technology their school might not have, like a 3-D scanner, Fab Lab's programming is beneficial because it connects students to working professionals in STEM fields, said Melissa Martinez, Montwood Middle School principal.

Fab Lab El Paso field trips aren't free and come at a cost for school districts, but a $50,000 donation from El Paso Electric will allow the mobile lab to begin offering free computer programming and coding lessons at schools.

©2019 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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