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North Hills Monthly

Fab Lab Promotes Innovation, Invention Outside the Classroom

Jul 29, 2019 10:50AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Kids experiment in the Fab Lab at the Carnegie Science Center.

Even though Fab Lab technically stands for ‘fabrication’ lab, if you ask Elizabeth Whitewolf, the director of science and education at the Carnegie Science Center, she’d say that the ‘fab’ in Fab Lab stands for ‘fabulous.’

The BNY Mellon Fab Lab Carnegie Science Center, a digital fabrication lab, has been open since 2015. And if you can imagine it, you can build it: Fab Lab users have produced everything from cake toppers to 3D printed wheels to quadcopter drones.

Whitewolf explained that, even though the concepts are similar, there is a difference between a maker space and a digital fabrication lab.

“A maker space is the set, and a digital fabrication space is the subset. A maker space is any space where you can make anything physical, whether made out of cardboard or duct tape, etc.,” said Whitewolf. “Digital fabrication tools are specific tools, such as 3D printers, vinyl cutters, laser cutters, and CNC (computer numerical control) machines, including a CNC embroidery machine.

“What makes the Fab Lab brand special is the concept behind it: it is open source technology with equitable access to the tools. All Fab Labs have the same tool set and use open source software so that people don’t have to pay to use it,” she said, adding that Fab Lab has free and open hours to the public. Specific training sessions are required to use each piece of equipment.

The digital fabrication laboratory movement began at MIT in the early 2000s and since then, approximately 1,600 fab labs have popped up globally. What is unique in the U.S., according to Whitewolf, is that the labs here are used for educational purposes.

Learning outside the classroom through hands-on tools is the new face of American education, particularly where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is concerned.

“Our goal is to develop STEM competencies in kids, and that is not necessarily the goal of classroom learning, so our missions are different,” said Whitewolf, adding that it’s easy to bridge the gap between out-of-school learning and in-school content with actual projects. “What is fun is that kids are interested in making things that exist in the world. When they work on a project, they have to activate the math and science knowledge that they learned in the classroom.”

More importantly, students need the freedom to fail and to learn from failure. “They don’t always come up against that in the classroom; when they turn in an assignment, they’re done,” said Whitewolf. “What is nice about Fab Lab is that when they finish a project, they can test it and make it better.”

The onsite lab focuses more on teacher professional development, though the public is invited to use the space on Friday nights after taking training classes and becoming certified in using specific machines.

To reach the maximum number of students, the BNY Mellon Fab Lab operates two mobile Fab Labs that travel to various schools in the region for weeklong labs in collaboration with educators. With the mobile Fab Labs, they reach about 8,000 students per year.

One of the initiatives that Whitewolf is excited about is Mentors in the Making, a one-on-one mentoring program funded by the Grable Foundation. Ten high school students come to the lab once a week, where they are matched with a STEM professional to learn the principles of digital fabrication.

“The first weeks are mentor/mentee co-learning. As the pair learns how to use the tools, they turn outward and look to the community for problems to solve. They work on a project in the Fab Lab, and at the end of the year, they present their prototypes,” said Whitewolf, adding that the program, which is in its second year, has been very successful. Next year, they’re looking to increase to 20 student participants.

Whitewolf said that they hope to grow the mentoring program nationally and are in the process of creating mobile fab labs for other institutes. 

“Fab Lab is part of a movement that is changing the educational ecosystem, making it a place where learning can happen, where connections can be made between classroom content and real-world problem solving,” she said.

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