By Kathy Chouteau
There’s nothing like a visit from your founding ideator to spur future inspiration. This fact is especially true when you run a Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory).
Sherry Lassiter, president & CEO of The Fab Foundation in Boston—which provided the funding via a generous grant from Chevron Richmond to create the Fab Lab Richmond—visited the innovation studio at Kennedy High School Tuesday. During Lassiter’s visit, she met with West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) stakeholders and discussed hot topics at fellow Fab Labs, planting the seeds for innovation and exploration among local students and community members.
The group included Director WCCUSD College & Career Dept. Dr. Allison Huie; Coordinator WCCUSD Science & Engineering John Iwawaki; Fab Lab Manager Alex Fleming; and Fab Lab Instructional Coach Darcy Long.
“This was one of the first projects we did for Chevron, and so this is a very special lab and a very special community.”
So…What exactly is a Fab Lab? The one at Kennedy High, the first of its kind at a public school system on the West Coast, is described as a workshop equipped with computer-controlled machines for “rapid prototyping,” and training related to them. The Fab Lab is open to students, teachers and staff, but also the community. Included among its array of equipment is a CNC Router commanding its own room at the lab and a laser cutter, to name a few. Class study trips, evening and weekend classes, technical training and open labs are also part of the Fab Lab’s mix.
The meeting between WCCUSD’s bright minds and Lassiter, who was essential to the Richmond Fab Lab’s inception and growth, spanned the universe from what’s hot in the world of Fab Labs, to student mentorship, to possible site visits, to connections with industry partners, and more. Lassiter was present for the Richmond site’s launch in 2015, and has returned since, so an easy rapport abounded.
“We’re a network of more than 2700 Labs in 135 countries,” said Lassiter about the foundation’s Fab Lab community, which is accessible by the Richmond site. Of the local lab she said, “This was one of the first projects we did for Chevron, and so this is a very special lab and a very special community,” adding that returning to Richmond and seeing the progress that’s been made has been extraordinary.
One hot topic that Lassiter mentioned to the WCCUSD team was bio fabrication, and how making the machines for a bio lab at the Fab Lab might be of interest. She suggested using a foldscope, or paper microscope, as a possible way to introduce biology at the Richmond site.
The WCCUSD College & Career-focused Huie said she’s interested in increasing students’ access to possible careers by “walking them through a real science lab,” such as at Stanford University. Lassiter encouraged such connections with industry partners and also said she can access student mentorships through the foundation’s Fab Lab network.
Not just students, the community is welcome to use the Fab Lab, too.
“Just because you didn’t have it when you were at school, doesn’t mean you can’t learn it now,” said Fleming.
He recalled an older lady from the neighborhood stopping by to check out the lab. Her time there started with learning to open a web browser and progressed to eventually designing and creating a T-shirt on behalf of her church. Fleming said her story is one of many similar ones.
“We want to level the playing field, we want everyone to have access to the tools, technology, innovation and invention. We want the community to participate in creating its own technological future,” said Lassiter.
She emphasized the importance of the labs being open to the public so that other people that don’t usually have access can potentially start a business or just make something.
“Our great hope is that we can also, in addition to teaching our children, create the future workforce,” Lassiter said. “That we can create new economic opportunity through these community-based labs.”
The Fab Foundation is a nonprofit that grew from MIT’s Center for BIT’s & Atoms Fab Lab Program and aims to provide the tools, knowledge and financial means to educate, innovate and invent using technology and digital fabrication to allow creation of “almost anything.” Lassiter said, “We still disseminate some of [MIT’s] research through the foundation and network.”