Beyond Makerspaces: Why We Created an xLab at Our School

I cringe when people ask me, “Are you handy?”

Partly because I don’t consider myself to be the best with tools, but also because it is asking me to judge whether or not I’m capable of fixing, making, or crafting something. Here’s the thing, I didn’t know how to put new shower tiles in and patch up my existing dry wall with cement board when we had a leak last year…but I had a friend help get me started, I watched a few DIY Youtube videos, looked at some articles online, and now I know how to do that (although not too well).

The same thing happens in high schools all the time. The “handy” kids go to shop class, the “artsy” kids go to art class,  the “business” kids go to business classes, the “techy” kids go to web design classes and so on…

It’s got to stop. We can’t continue labeling kids as one thing or another thing. What we know about the future workforce is that creativity, making, and innovating will be at the center of most jobs…and that will require students to be all of the above:

‘Experts predict that 50 per cent of occupations today will no longer exist by 2025 as people will take up more creative professions,’ said Martin Chen, Chief Operating Officer of Genesis.

When we started to look at the research and studies at Upper Perk, one thing kept hitting us again and again: All students need to be given the chance to build (not just make).

The Definition of a Makerspace

Diana Rendina wrote a fantastic article on “Defining Makerspaces” that dives into what actually constitutes a Makerspace, and created this awesome graphic:


While there are many different definitions, most use the term makerspace as a place for making, learning, and collaborating.

That’s why I agree with John Spencer when he said that Theaters are the hidden Makerspaces of schools. And that’s why I agree with Diana, that a Makerspace can be in a library, a classroom, a wood/metal shop, an art room, or even a computer lab.

In my perfect idea of school, every classroom would be considered a makerspace because students would always be making, learning, and collaborating.

In planning for our new Makerspace at Upper Perk two things happened to make us think a little bit bigger. Sure, we wanted students making, working together to solve problems, and learning along the way. We knew the power of a makerspace. Yet, it wasn’t just about the space. We were revising curriculum (you can read about that process here). We took apart our entire K-12 scope of technology education. We wanted to bring in equipment that could literally allow our students to build anything they dreamed of building.

And in the end, we went beyond a makerspace, and built an xLab.

What the Heck is an xLab?

Let’s break down the term “xLab” into two separate pieces.

First, start with the term Lab. The definition of a lab or laboratory is a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, creating or teaching. It is derived from early 17th century: medieval Latin laboratorium, from Latin laborare ‘to labor.

And while we can talk about how much “fun” it is to make things and create things, it’s also a lot of hard work. A lot of labor. What you put in to the building, is what you get out of it. That’s the lesson we can learn from some of the greatest inventors and creators throughout history. We also see that most of them worked in some type of lab.

Thomas Edison built and worked in a research lab. Albert Einstein, also worked in a research lab. Nikola Tesla, yep you guessed it, worked in a lab as well. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, is also busy building labs for his company.

Now for the “x” part of the xLab name.

The “x” represents not only the unknown, but also the potential and possibilities of the unknown. The “x” means a student can dream as big or as small as they’d like while making, creating, and building. The “x” is opportunity, and one that is not predefined nor judged on standards.

Google’s Solve for X site explains the spirit of “x” in their mission perfectly:

We are a community of scientists, inventors, engineers, artists, thinkers, doers, the young, the wise, men and women from every background across every geography connected by a shared optimism that science and technology can cause radically positive things to happen in the world.

When we took a team of teachers and administrators to Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Program and saw what innovation looked like at the college level, we couldn’t stop talking about the idea of “x” on the way back home.

We had revised our curriculum to allow for a design thinking approach to engineering, robotics, and industrial design. We bought equipment that could transform what our students would be able to make and build (CNC Router, Heat Press, Vinyl Cutter, 3D Printers, Vex Robotics, etc). And we had teachers passionate about giving students an authentic experience each and every day.

The UPxLab came out of many discussions on research, experiences, visits and collaboration across multiple levels, departments, and spaces. And it’s awesome.

This is why I’m helping to run a FREE course this summer on Design Thinking with John Spencer, where I can go into more detail about building the xLab and the process. Click Here to Sign-Up for the FREE Design Thinking Course this Summer.

Building Products to Build a Future

The xLab is still in its infancy. Our programs and course offering are changing and will continue to change. But we know what our purpose is for the xLab.

Students should have real world building opportunities. Making for others can be just as rewarding as making for yourself. Students building benches for the local YMCA and stage design for our TEDxPennsburgED event is a powerful and authentic experience.

Students need to have choice and ownership in what they make and build.

What students learn in other classes will directly impact what they create in the xLab. The same goes for what they build in the xLab will directly impact the type of work they do in other classes. Tying together education and departmental goals is a huge step in multi-disciplinary work that matters.

In the end, it comes down to this: The goal is not to prepare students for something; but to help our students prepare themselves for anything.

Here’s some pictures of the xLab and I can’t wait to keep sharing what ALL of our students are building, making, creating, and doing.

TEDxPennsburgED sign students built and part of our xLab space.
Principal Carpenter watching students design a product on “Inventor” and then cut it using the CNC Router.
Got to have some LOVE in the xLab!
The classroom portion of the xLab space with 3D Printers and Robotics.
The TEDxPennsburgED set design out students at Upper Perk built for the event!

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