Using a CNC in a Middle School Makerspace, Stem Lab, or Fab lab

Our Innovative Arts Lab (it has also been called a fab lab, maker space, STEM lab, and STEAM lab) had CNC machines inside when it was first built and none of the teachers knew how to use them. Our outstanding administration was eager to fill the space with machines that the whole school would use. Years later, I have taken the Middle School Technology position, moved into the Innovative Arts Lab, and all the kids are eager to use our CNC machines!

What is a CNC machine?

Computer Numerical Control machines have been around for decades. Schools started installing machines in the industrial arts workshops in the 1990s. They work as a computer controls the movement of a tool. The tool is then cutting or shaping the material very precisely. It is fascinating to watch!

What can you do with a CNC machine in a STEM lab or Fab lab?

You can do things that are impossible to do any other way. If you need a wheel, a CNC machine will easily be able to cut a perfect circle with a hole directly in the center and any size. It can also cut complex shapes, letters, pockets, insets, gears, or anything else. 

Machines do not inspire creativity by themselves

Unfortunately, this isn’t the use that kids will use it for. The first years with our Fab lab CNC machines consisted of kids putting words on boards almost exclusively. I found, after many frustrating years with students, that letting them put words on boards did not help them do more creative things later, instead, they made the machines seem boring and passe.  It was not until creating Innovative Arts and making many example projects that kids started becoming more creative with the machines.

Innovative Arts Example Projects

These projects give kids a reason to learn the CNC. The best projects are impossible to make any other way. Here are some examples:

What machines do we use?

We were lucky enough to purchase three Carveys from before they discontinued them. We also have two xCarve machines that will work with larger projects. What I most appreciate about Inventables is the affordable machined and the simple, browser-based design software. Kids are able to design their projects on their Chromebooks before they sign-in on the laptops that run the machines. 

Inventables Software

CNC power users will not like Easel, the cloudbased software that runs in a browser. Middle school CNC users, on the other hand, love it! It is simple to understand and has enough functionality to do plenty of interesting projects.

Free alternatives to this are not nearly as user-friendly. Cambam and F Engrave require a lot more technical knowledge.

You (or your students) can take my Inventables CNC course here!

Middle School CNC teachers: Choose your materials wisely.

MDF was cheap and we used it for years. That was a mistake because the dust is especially harmful to our lungs. All of the remaining stock was thrown out when we realized the harm that was accumulating.

Now we use a material that was donated by Laird Plastics – DiCORE composite material. It has a layer of white aluminum foil on the outside and black expanded PVC on the inside. It is the perfect material for our class. Expanded PVC is easy to cut and we rarely break any bits.  Any details stand out because it is black inside. It is light, strong, and can be cut with tin snips. 
We are fortunate to have a panel saw and miter saw right in the lab. We are able to quickly chop down four by eight-foot sheets of material for student use. You’ll want a plan before committing to getting a CNC machine.

Don’t forget about CNC dust

Dust is a problem with CNC machines. No matter what is being cut, microparticle are being expelled into the air. Our first attempt to collect dust was with cheap shop vacs. Next, we purchased a 55-gallon dust collector. Both of these vent their air into the room and did not collect the fine dust particles. Most classrooms will have this problem.

Our eventual solution was to put the dust collector below the external vent in the Innovative Arts Lab. When the room was built, a switch in the wall would turn on an exhaust in the ceiling that vents outside. The fine dust particles are directed into the exhaust. Getting a proper dust collection installed would be many thousands of dollars and was not considered an option.

3D Printing has a few advantages over CNC

The dust problem needs to be addressed for the health of the teacher and students.

Materials need to be cut down to size to fit inside a CNC machine. Middle school CNC projects are usually modest-sized but precut materials are expensive. Middle school students make mistakes and will need a second piece of material to try again.

I recommend many cheap 3D printers to a single expensive one.

Objects can have much more detail and depth since 3d printing is an additive process.

Teaching kids how to 3D design and print is much more enjoyable than the slightly frustrating process of giving a middle school class experience with a CNC machine. Working with a an entire class of creators is much easier if you start with the 3D printers over the CNC machines. I put together my curriculum for teaching 5th graders TinkerCAD as a course that anyone can purchase. It is also available for free to anyone who signs up for the Puzzle Shift Create email list.

I have not created a “teaching CNC to middle school students” lesson plan because I am unsure that anyone would want that. Please reach out to me if you would find that useful.

Innovative Arts

Innovative Arts is about helping kids to become creators of their own type and machines like the CNC make it possible. The hardest lesson to learn that it is not about the machine, however. It is about helping kids to see what is possible using all of the resources (and machines) that they have available to them to dive headfirst into something they find interesting.

Please connect on social media or leave a comment if you found this at all useful.

Do you work with students in a makerspace or STEM Lab?

I started the Creators Co-op because I could buy materials for my students in bulk for much, much less than retail price. The bulk discount is available to other teachers and Co-op members. I run this because I want to help more students to be able to learn how to create with affordable supplies. 

Sponsors are needed to make it work

Sponsoring the Creators Co-op and Puzzle Shift Create will help bring more materials to the Co-op and help develop the Innovative Arts curriculum. Without sponsors, none of this would be possible. Learn more here.

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  1. Actually, I found myself here because I was searching for CNC lessons 🙂
    I know the frustration of trying to inspire creative design thinking in middle schoolers and don’t want to see another personalized-name-keychain “designed” in TinkerCAD anytime soon. What is an Innovative Arts project?

    1. I updated the post to include a video of some of the example projects I have been making with kids. Hopefully I can get everything together to raise the bar when it comes to projects in classrooms.

  2. I am so happy I found your blog and I absolutely love your information about maker education tools using a cnc in a middle school makerspace stem lab. I liked and it is wonderful to know about so many things that are useful for all of us! Thanks a lot for this amazing blog!!