Never too late to learn digital fabrication

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Blended introductory courses on digital fabrication in Paris alternate between online lessons and practice in fablabs, partnered with Makery.

Training day at Villette Makerz in Paris. We meet Baptiste Gaultier, trainer and engineer, who is passing on his knowledge to 15 learners. Baptiste is from Rennes, where he is a research engineer at Institut Mines-Télécom (IMT) Atlantique, one of three sites in France along with the campuses of Brest and Nantes. (L’Ecole des Mines de Nantes and Telecom Bretagne are now the same school, training generalist engineers in digital media, telecommunications and energy.) Part of IMT Atlantique’s mission as a general engineering school is to offer free MOOC (massive open online courses) to large communities of learners (thousands of participants). The objective is to offer videos, exercises, written lessons and online activities that are later followed-up on-site in fablabs with hands-on practice on the various aspects of digital fabrication—an approach known as “blended learning”.

Baptiste Gaultier at Villette Makerz. © Makery
Presenting the Bionicohand. © Makery

Since 2017, Makery and MCD (Musiques et Cultures Digitales) have joined the initiative in order to coproduce the introductory phase of a comprehensive French MOOC dedicated to digital fabrication: “S’Initier à la Fabrication Numérique” (IFN). In 2018, 30 people participated in the first session.

Buoyed by this initial success, IMT received regional funding to renew the MOOC including the IFN brick. This year, 80 job seekers were selected from 600 applications to the course. The sharp increase in demand can be explained, beyond the fact that digital fabrication skills open up a wider range and diversity of job prospects, by the course’s recent IMT certification, which officially validates each technical skill covered in the program.

Complementing professional skills

Baptiste Gaultier: “We developed a series of MOOC, each with a clear topic. In the beginning, we offer introductory courses in electronics, 3D printing, laser-cutting, on various machines that are available in the fablabs. This helps people understand what a fablab is, what you can do in one. Then on top of this basic MOOC, we add bricks on more advanced topics. Now we have four courses running on the established platforms Fun (in French) and Edx (in English), which people can join according to their skill level.”

Villette Makerz is one of the fabrication venues that hosts the blended MOOC programs. “Participants complete what they learn online with their presence here, enriching it, validating it, before going back to an online session, then coming back here again, and so on, in alternation and autonomy,” Baptiste explains. “We’ve been hosting blended courses for more than a year now, this is our third group of learners. We train people in-between jobs, people who want to complement their former training with skills that can be applied directly to their current work or job search. They come from diverse backgrounds. Today at Villette Makers we have people from publishing, digital media, industrial sectors, who want to expand their skills.” The course doesn’t train you for a specific career, as digital fabrication jobs are notoriously hard to define, but it does help to complete your CV with bricks of technical skills that are valuable on the job market.

The first participant surveys by MCD indicate that the training recreates social dynamics that are favorable to job hunting or starting a business. Out of the 110 job seekers trained (30 in 2017 and 80 in 2018-19), 63% are no longer searching for employment, and 67% affirm that the training was useful in (re)joining the professional world. The 4-month program encourages bringing projects to maturity and networking with professionals (often necessary before jumping into entrepreneurship), as well as other learners, as many of them are already working together on common projects.

Baptiste Gaultier accompanies learners in their individual endeavors. © Makery
Tests with Makey Makey. © Makery

Other spaces also host the 2019 MOOC program: Edfab at Cap Digital, Ici Montreuil, SqyLab in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. “The course is relatively easy to deploy, as all the fablabs share the same recipe,” says Baptiste. “So we have a session that starts in September in Brittany, another in the north of France in 2020.”

The idea is to gradually enrich the MOOC with other topics. “This year we’ll focus on parametric 3D modeling—learning to render mechanical pieces, assembly pieces, using professional software. This will complete our existing basic 3D modeling for laser-cutting or 3D printing, so that we can send our files to professional CNC machines that can work with much more materials. We also want to implement a thematic MOOC on smart objects and the “nano grid” to help learners understand and follow electricity consumption using technologies from fablabs on the scale of a professional, administrative or individual building, for example. These technologies give us a very precise view of what is going on in terms of energy consumption—not production, but rather in order to better control and reduce your own consumption, to be self-sufficient through small production means such as solar or wind power.”

At Edfab in Saint-Denis

The following week, we visited the training in session at Edfab in Saint-Denis. We met Arthur Baude, who had trained the trainers last year, including Lola, fabmanager of Edfab. “This year, I’m accompanying the learners through certain parts, for example, Arduino today. In this course, they were recruited by Pôle Emploi and our partner MCD. So far the course is going well, they’re two-thirds of the way through. They’ve already done the 4 weeks of IFN, followed by 4 weeks of 3D printing an object, and now 4 weeks of Arduino. For the 3D printing, they had to do a team project, so they made a multi-layered box, which combined their skills in digital fabrication and electronics.”

In the current session, the learners start with a basic Arduino and learn more complex parts, then start a team project, for which they can request sensors, which they might not even know how to use yet. “They can go further but also learn how to be more autonomous—we give them hints, but we also tell them to learn to do it themselves. It’s pretty fun, it’s going well, they’re managing fine,” says Arthur.

Arthur Baude talks about what you can do with sensors at Edfab. © Makery
The infamous banana as conductor of electric current. © Makery
And the current runs through the circuit. © Makery

Profiles and skills vary greatly among the participants. “Some have a background in music, others in computers, sales, we also had some artisans,” says Arthur. “Up till last year, we only accepted professionals over the age of 45, but now we’re open to everyone, so we have both older and younger people.” Learners have 1 to 3 hours of MOOC per week, where they learn all the basics: “Time could be spent on site, where they take all the individual time they need, as they are more independent and so can make progress on more advanced things.” The session itself lasts 3.5 hours, but learners have one extra free hour to work on their own, use the machines and meet the other users of the fablab.

For Arthur, this model is especially effective, as it echoes his own experience. “I come from graphic design and was self-taught in digital fabrication and Arduino. Now I identify as a designer-maker-artist, I mix all three in the work that I do. So beyond mixing design and making, it’s a good thing that people don’t need to go through everything I did, learning all by myself. My energy goes toward facilitating and making these skills more accessible, so that everything goes smoothly for the learners. I really like doing this.” And the method seems to be working, as since the IFN course launched, 95% of learners are satisfied and 85% are certified.

Tinkering in the fablab during the free hour. © Makery

The last blended MOOC program in France in 2019 will start in September, based on similar prerequisites and profiles. However, it will be accessible through Comptes Personnels de Formation (CPF) or by fee of 2900€ for approximately 90 hours of training (45 hours online and 45 hours on-site). The program will be held on-site at the new Fablab de la Verrière (Ici Montreuil) in the Paris region. Applications are now open.

For more information, please visit the website and download the brochure (in French)