Narrowing the achievement gap and harnessing the power of technology to help students succeed in an increasingly global workforce were the topics of choice as thousands of educators and technology directors descended on Denver Wednesday to kick off the National School Boards Association’s T+L² conference.

Technology is “a gateway to closing the achievement gap and creating 21st century learning environments,” said Joan Schmidt, president of the National School Boards Association in welcoming attendees from all 49 states and the District of Columbia as well as dozens of countries to this year’s event at the Colorado Convention Center.

Her comments were reinforced by a stirring and visionary keynote address from Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who encouraged attendees and educators everywhere to embrace what he believes is the start of an entirely new technological revolution: The age of “personal fabrication.”

After years of harping on the coming of the “digital revolution,” Gershenfeld says, the time has come and gone. The new revolution, he claims, isn’t happening on the internet, but in the classroom, where teachers and students are using a newfound understanding of technology’s potential to create … almost anything.

Imagine an alarm clock you have to wrestle to prove you’re actually awake, or a wearable container that works as a portable stress reliever, capturing your screams of frustration in silence and recording them for release at a more convenient time. Want something more practical? How about a device that eliminates red-eye from photographs or low-income houses made from snap-together parts–giant Legos constructed to revitalize struggling downtown neighborhoods?

These and other innovations are all concepts that evolved out of Gershenfeld’s latest class at MIT. The course, called “How to Make Almost Anything,” stays true to its name by surrounding students with millions of dollars of lab equipment, computers, and high-tech machinery designed for what the professor has dubbed “personal fabrication.”

The ultimate in project-based learning, the course brings students together to create personalized products designed to meet their own individual needs. Whatever they can imagine, Gershenfeld says, the idea is that with the help of technology, they can build it.

Rather than mass producing products, Gershenfeld believes technology will evolve during the 21st century so that individuals can become their own manufacturers, using digital blueprints constructed on computers to produce products that address their own unique needs–whatever those might be.

“Technology can be as passionate an experience as painting a painting or writing a sonnet,” said Gershenfeld, who believes that in the future, rather than taking classes about how to use technology, the trend will be to offer more courses that teach students to create technology–from the ground up.

That’s what he’s done at MIT–and it’s what he is doing now through the creation of “Fab-Labs,” a series of project-based learning laboratories launched in the most unlikely of academic environments–from the poorest neighborhoods in inner-city Boston to South Africa and a remote village in Ghana.

With as little as $20,000 worth of equipment, Gershenfeld claims he can build technology labs with enough equipment to teach even the most disadvantaged students, from the most desolate of communities, how to fabricate their own circuit boards and create the building blocks of any electronic device.

While the concept itself might seem far-fetched to all those who lack the intellectual prowess that pervades the research labs and libraries at MIT, Gershenfeld insists the ability to create almost anything through digital fabrication will be a reality in 20 years.

But only, he says, if educators embrace the changes wrought by this new technological revolution.

Gershenfeld called on schools and communities to create “villages of innovation,” where different cultures and societies can congregate to share ideas and create new products from the power of their own imaginations–“not by being consumers,” he said, “but by being creators.”

Remember, says Gershenfeld, “we are limited only by our own creative imaginations.”

For more on what’s happening in Denver, check back with eSchool News each day during the conference for updates from the featured speakers as well as news from the exhibit floor and session reviews by the eSN Conference Correspondents.

Links:

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

The Center for Bits and Atoms
http://cba.mit.edu/