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Mobile fab lab provides 3-D printing, laser etching on the go

The scent of melted plastic and scorched wood filled the air of the Olin and Chalmers libraries’ parking lot last week on Aug. 30. The source? The Cleveland Mobile Fab Lab, a roving workshop for aspiring inventors, engineers and artists. Students, professors and local families surrounded the trailer, where they built small wooden creatures and assembling robots.

Physicist Neil Gershenfeld thought of the idea for the first mobile fab lab, short for “fabrication laboratory” in 2014, as he taught a class called “How to Make (almost) Anything” at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   The Cleveland Mobile Fab Lab is an offshoot of this original idea: The 28-foot-long trailer houses 3-D printers, laser cutters and tools for machining metal and wood. It can travel nearly anywhere, but usually the lab serves schools within the Cleveland Municipal School District. It allows students to have hands-on engineering experience early in life. The lab’s coordinator, Sarah Pendergast Wallace ’09, spent seven years working as a math, engineering and art teacher in New York before moving back to Ohio to run the program.

“I’m seeing 200 to 300 kids a week who, if it wasn’t for Mobile Fab Lab, wouldn’t be able to use a 3-D printer or wouldn’t know an engraver even existed,” Wallace said. “We’re living in the 21st century and the jobs that [will be] available for the kids involve these kinds of technologies.”

The lab visits a different school in the district each week, during the school year, and because the lab is owned by the the Cleveland Municipal School District, the only cost for schools is the cost of materials used by students. The Office of Community Partnerships brought the fab lab to campus using funds from a special community initiative to expand STEM-based education in Knox County, according to Director of Community Partnerships Jen Odenweller.

Pre-cut wood, plastic and metal components allow young visitors to the lab to piece together small builds, while more advanced visitors can use digital plans to laser cut, engrave and 3-D print nearly anything. Wallace reported that, at an international fab lab conference in Chile, a man was able to 3-D print the materials needed to build a small but functional house. On the Hill, the size of the creations matched the scale of the lab. A student at Wiggin Street Elementary School was able to laser-cut the parts needed to build a small wooden bird. Other, older students worked on tiny robots and even full-sized rocking chairs.

Professor of Mathematics Judy Holdener took five of her Calculus III students to the fab lab in order to help them understand the multivariable functions they have been working with in class.

“It was really, really fun,” Holdener said. “We were able to take these mathematical forms that exist symbolically and in theory and make them concrete [using a 3-D printer] so that we could hold them while we discussed them.”

The foam models of hyperbolic paraboloids (saddle-shaped math model), standing in tandem with the wooden bird models and engraved keychains, were representative of the wide range of uses people find for the fab lab.

“My favorite part about the fab lab, in general, is that every person experiences it differently,” Wallace said.

Photo Editor Nikki Anderson contributed reporting.

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