Tech4Good Awards: Winners help disabled students skill up in emerging digital fabrication job market

As a new academic year starts, a new growing season begins and the seeds of the future are being planted at FabFarm! N Ireland. Could a digital aquaponics unit, run by young people with special educational needs, boost employment chances for a marginalised section of society?

The job market can be tough for graduates, and for those with a disability the chances of securing a job are even further reduced. According to the charity Scope, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. 


But Fabfarm!, set up at Ardnashee School & College by creative media hub The Nerve Centre, is trying to challenge this. It gained recognition over the summer, collecting the AbilityNet Tech4Good Digital Skills award for its fantastic work in equipping young disabled students for the digital marketplace.

The farm, which is run as a commercial operation, with fresh produce sold to local businesses, is equipped with 3D printers used by students to create modular parts for the project and other items for the business.

Digital inclusion and STEM

Students also use the latest open source software such as Inkscape, Google Sketchup and Cura and, importantly, gain an accredited training certificate in Digital Fabrication & Design in the process. Digital Fabrication technologies, like 3D printing, are rapidly impacting upon the employment market but accredited training is still relatively rare.

“We are innovating here in Northern Ireland with something that has not been done anywhere before," says Donna Cartin, vice principle of Ardnashee School & College. The combination of technology, STEM and social enterprise is powerful in unlocking key areas of learning for young people and its application to special educational needs learners is particularly powerful and socially driven.” 

She continued: “We feel that inclusion should be at the heart oftechnological development and our learners should have the earliest opportunity to engage with new and emerging tech.”

Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s work in digital aquaponics and by digital aquaponics farms in the states and elsewhere, the team is developing its own model of creating sustainable food, while offering training skills to an underserved group. In the future there is potential for paid employment for FabFarm! graduates and expansion of the model to other schools."

Fabfarm collect the Digital Skills Award at Tech4Good 2017

Tech4Good Awards boost

The award means a lot to the project, which has just started the second year of its three year pilot. “The platform the award has given us has been fantastic,” says John Peto, director of education at the Nerve Centre.

“We want to share the work and see FabFarms growing beyond Derry and Ireland. The award can only help us to achieve that. It’s also been brilliant for the young people to achieve the recognition for what they do at such a high level. We think it can lead all of us on to bigger and better things.”

See the full list of AbilityNet Tech4Good Award winners 2017 here.