Volunteers building 'Fab Lab' to teach fabrication skills

Volunteers building 'Fab Lab' to teach fabrication skills

URBANA – Volunteers are creating a "Fab Lab" on the University of Illinois campus where school kids and area residents alike can learn fabrication skills.

When completed in a couple months, the lab will join about 40 other Fab Labs around the world where people can design and build their own projects.

The labs are typically equipped with laser cutters, sign cutters and milling machines, as well as electronic assembly and test equipment, power supplies, resistors, capacitors and circuit boards.

Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, one of the volunteers organizing the lab, said the project is seen "as a way of reaching out to the community and helping promote invention and creativity among kids in Champaign and Urbana."

But it may also serve as a resource for creative people who consider themselves part of the "maker" community and want to learn how to use tools so they can complete their projects.

"I genuinely believe that invention, design and creativity represent literacy for the 21st century," said Cutcher-Gershenfeld, who is dean of the UI's School of Labor and Employee Relations.

He predicts Fab Labs will be as essential to tomorrow's students as libraries have been to previous generations.

The lab will be housed in a small building south of the College of ACES Library that dates back to the 1800s. The building, formerly used as an art studio, is being wired for Internet access.

The Fab Lab concept originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Cutcher-Gershenfeld's brother, Neal Gershenfeld, developed the first Fab Lab. Gershenfeld, a professor who is director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, is recognized as founder of the global Fab Lab movement.

The local lab got its start when Cutcher-Gershenfeld approached Linda Katehi – at that time the UI's provost – about the idea. She allocated $50,000 from the provost's budget for equipment for the lab.

Last year, when organizers were trying to figure out where the lab should be, Champaign's Columbia School was an early candidate. But eventually, they decided a campus location would be best, and the studio became available last fall.

Since then, "project manager" Gary Watson – who worked at the UI's Abbott Power Plant before retirement – has been seeking furnishings and equipment for the lab.

"I've tried to get the facilities up and running and save as much money as we can during the process," Watson said.

Cutcher-Gershenfeld said the Fab Lab will teach kids about materials science and what various pieces of equipment can do. It's hoped they'll see how technology can help them achieve objectives.

"This could be an avenue to becoming an inventor," Cutcher-Gershenfeld said.

Potential users of the lab include the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, the Champaign and Urbana school districts and Parkland College, as well as community residents.

But exactly how the lab will operate is still being determined.

"The thought is that afternoons and Saturdays might be ... programs targeted to junior high school or high school ages," Cutcher-Gershenfeld said. "But during the day, it could be available for university or Parkland students who want to use it, or entrepreneurs, or people who think it's cool to make things."

It's conceivable that community residents would be charged user fees to cover the costs of materials, and grants might help support some programs, he said.

One volunteer, Jonathan Manton, said he's encountered many people excited about using the lab.

"Everybody seems to have a project they want to do, but they're not sure how they might do it," he said.

He cited the example of a colleague who wants to experiment with different wing shapes for his sailplane but doesn't have the resources in his basement to construct a wing precisely.

Volunteer organizer Betty Barrett said she would like to use the lab's equipment to make jewelry that's cut out and stamped.

"When I was a girl, girls couldn't take shop or auto mechanics or cool things. We had to take sewing and home ec," said Barrett, who teaches in the School of Labor and Employee Relations.

"The Fab Lab appeals to me as a place where kids have an outlet to explore," she said, adding that it can fulfill educational needs across age groups.

"Eventually, our goal is to be community-based so we can (serve) adults who want to be retrained, or artists who want to do their own thing, or entrepreneurs, or innovators who can use the resources of the lab to do interesting and fun things," she said.

"It may be nothing more than to explore their own creativity, but that means they're going to generate ideas, and ideas are incredibly dangerous things," Barrett said.

Watson said the lab can help middle- and high-school-age kids get "interested in staying in school, going on in science and math and the computer side of things."

Plus, the practical things they do in the lab will demonstrate the importance of what they're learning in the classroom, he said.

Watson said he visited a Fab Lab at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis., last year. That lab was started largely as a community outreach to inventors and entrepreneurs.

"People had an idea, but didn't know how to prototype it and take it to market," he said.

Watson said Fab Labs are located throughout the world, even though they're just starting to spread in the U.S.

"They all try to stay on the same page so they can interact with each other," he said.

Watson said students in the United States can use the lab's communications systems to talk with kids in South Africa, Germany and Japan about better ideas for skateboard wheels.

That potential for international collaboration "has got to be pretty awesome," he said.

Watson said organizers hope to start with a pilot program with the Boys & Girls Club this spring. They'd also like to have an open house for area teachers so they can work in the lab, recognize its capabilities and see how it could be used in their classes.

"The main emphasis is outreach to the schools," he said, "but if there's enough interest, on Saturdays we could have an open lab and anyone from the community could come."

Other Fab Labs in the Midwest include one at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and one in Columbus, Ohio.

Watson said a few high schools have embraced the labs, and a lot of interest has been shown by community colleges.

Once the local lab is up and running, Watson hopes a mobile lab can be created in a trailer so it can be taken to area schools.

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