What would you do if you could make anything your mind could dream up? More importantly, where would you go to do this?
At the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago (MSI Chicago), you can go to the Wanger Family Fab Lab, “a small-scale workshop for computer-based innovation, design and fabrication.” The lab features 10 3D printers, three milling machines (capable of creating things up to 4’x8’), two laser cutters (for cardboard, acrylic and Plexiglas), two vinyl cutters, an electronics area, micro controllers and computers loaded with design and manufacturing software. And best of all … it’s free with museum admission. Visitors as young as eight can make and take home their own stickers, key chains, t-shirt designs, robots, or even a mini version of themselves.
What began as the class, “How to make (almost) anything” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has grown to over 100 Fab Labs worldwide. They all share open-source software, equipment and core capabilities and even work with each other to help each other learn. All Fab Labs have the common goal of serving their local communities and giving people the skills to think of something and see it come to life. Whether it is 20-minute vinyl sticker workshops or 10-week programs in which local high school groups design robots, the program has something for everyone.
In their “Science Achievers” program, teens develop a project from idea all the way to final design, and their creations become part of the museum’s exhibits. One participant named Elijah began the program in the 10-week Boot Camp stage, learning the ins and outs of the software, and continued the program as part of a team that made a trebuchet. After weeks of perfecting their design the budding engineers excitedly got to tour a manufacturing plant, where they were able to see engineers working in real life. Elijah, still in school, now has the tools to become an innovator in his own right.
With a staff-to-participant ratio as little as 1-to-3, the Fab Lab is about more than a 21st century craft project. Fab Lab manager Dan Meyer says, “it’s about empowering people to use the design process to change the world around them. And they don’t need a Fab Lab to do it but can do it with a pen and paper.” On the cusp of the personal design and fabrication revolution, the museum is holding true to the idea that museums are spaces for people to learn about themselves and the world around them.
Fab Labs also break down the barriers of the manufacturing industry. All projects are gender-neutral and around half the participants are young girls and women. Even adults who have never used a computer enter the lab and are designing on their own by the end of the programs. Meyer says one of his favorite designs was two girls who designed key chains on the first visit and by their tenth visit had designed a 3D gummi bear that dispensed gummi bears. [Author’s note: Genius! Where can I get one?]
While the MSI Chicago has helped start out other Fab Labs and even hosted a mobile version that went to nearby rural towns, they have dreams to help open another Fab Lab in Chicago and to have their programs open more frequently than twice weekly. They would also like to expand their student programs so they can continue to teach and empower local youth. To learn more about the Wanger Family Fab Lab and their innovative approach to learning and discovery at the MSI Chicago, check out the MSI’s website here.
If you had the opportunity to make anything, what would you make?
Christian Hernandez is the Plinth contributor for the Central Region and an independent contractor for museums and cultural institutions in the US and Canada.