It all started with a high school student raising his hand and asking a simple question: “Can we have a Fab Lab here?”
The year was 2005, and the questioner was a high-school aged student enrolled in the early college program offered by Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. The student asked it of Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, who was visiting as part of Lorain’s Meeting Great Minds program. Gershenfeld was opening students’ eyes to the excitement of MIT’s Fab Lab program. He described how Fab Labs are helping people in developing nations all around the globe… how they’re learning competitive 21st century job skills… becoming self-sustaining communities. So the question was provocative. Why not here in America? Here, where we’re trying to build businesses and restore hobbled neighborhoods into thriving communities?
One simple question led to a great answer: the creation of the Fab Lab at Lorain County Community College (LCCC), the first Fab Lab in the United States outside MIT’s local reach in the Boston area. Part of Gershenfeld’s response to the question was to encourage development of a regional Fab Lab network whose members could support one another’s growth. This led to the creation in 2006 of the Midwest Fab Lab Network, hosted by David Richardson at LCCC. Richardson was the driving force behind the Meeting Great Minds program, and also played a leadership role in developing the University Partnership at Lorain; thanks to this Partnership, 2-year students at Lorain can now take 3rd and 4th year undergraduate classes offered on the Lorain campus by nearby colleges.
The blossoming of Fab Labs around the U.S. led to the creation of the US Fab Lab Network in 2009. Starting in 2014, Richardson began to serve as its chair. “I retired from teaching at Cleveland State University in 2000, but I remain involved in Fab Labs for a simple reason,” explained Richardson. “In all my years of teaching I have never seen an educational tool that motivates people more than a Fab Lab.”
Richardson continued, “There are different methods of teaching. You can talk about your subject matter. You can demonstrate it. Or you can involve the student directly in making. Learning by making is like handing an eager student — or even a somewhat passive student — a seat on a rocket ship. Give them a project, and students take off. This is self-motivated education; there’s nothing more effective, or more satisfying to witness.”
“Everyone leaves Fab Lab workshops with a smile,” said Richardson. “If they leave looking frustrated, it’s because they haven’t finished their project and want to keep going. I love this kind of learning because it’s not about earning the A, B, or C, or doing well on an SAT. It’s about constant iteration… how can I solve this problem? How can I apply what I just learned to making another version or another project? The bottom line: it’s about self-actualization, and I find it inspiring.”
ShopBot is hands-on with Fab Labs.
ShopBot has been involved in the innovative and progressive Fab Lab agenda for many years, supplying a ShopBot CNC router as an integral component of Fab Labs, including Mobile Fab Labs that tour the country. Fab Labs typically also feature laser cutters, 3D printers, and other digital fabrication tools.
David Richardson commented, “What I’ve noted over the years is that ShopBot’s tools come with really good people.” Richardson recently reconnected with Sallye Coyle, ShopBot’s educational outreach director, at an ITEEA conference in Florida. “She was there to speak with teachers and community college executives, and to demonstrate ShopBot CNC’s capabilities. I couldn’t help but notice the way that folks were actively engaged with her demonstration; her presentations drew groups of engaged makers.”
Lorain County Community College is truly a hub of support for innovation in the community it serves. The Fab Lab is just one element of the school’s dedicated resources in support of Technology Commercialization. The College also is home to NEO LaunchNet, offering business startup help; Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise (GLIDE), a unique public/private partnership that supports startups; and the College also provides workforce development, education and training.