So, it’s true, it takes exactly the amount of time that you’ve been away to get caught up once you’re back and then some. This brings me to today and I can finally share some experience and reflection on the TI trip to Boston last week. It was probably one of the most memorable and incredible experiences I’ve ever had and it wasn’t even vacation. Warning: This is a long post but it serves many purposes. The main reason being that I want to avoid retelling my experience 100x and it was amazing. Feel free to skim or skip but I refuse to tell this in neat bullet points. I’ve written and rewritten this post in my head, but now I just need to start.
As Micah posted along our trip we visited Jobs for the Future (JFF), an MIT Fablab, and Community Builders. As 20% innovation, my main function and reason for being on the trip was to check out the MIT FabLab. Although, JFF and Community Builders were equally fascinating, I imagine Monica, Micah, and/or Steven will post on these visits.
Fablab. Better yet, the Center for Bits and Atoms which is housed in MIT Media Lab, where the concept was born. Micah has pictures to post (a-hem), which I imagine he will do once he’s back in the office tomorrow. For now, my description will have to suffice. The MIT media lab is where as a graduate student from there describes “as a place where square pegs that can’t fit in round holes go.” Yes, I want to live here. According to their website,
The Media Laboratory provides a unique environment for exploring basic research and applications at the intersection of computation and the arts.
Research at the Media Lab comprises interconnected developments in an unusual range of disciplines, such as software agents; machine understanding; how children learn; human and machine vision; audition; speech interfaces; wearable computers; affective computing; advanced interface design; tangible media; object-oriented video; interactive cinema; digital expression—from text, to graphics, to sound; and new approaches to spatial imaging, nanomedia, and nanoscale sensing.
Surprisingly enough, not everyone here is a scientist. About one-third of the students here are an unusual mix of humanities ranging from psychology and sociology to anthropology. I think this is a true collaborative approach to multi-disciplinary thinking. Upon walking in, your senses are immediately blasted by an ideo-like setting where there are drawers upon drawers of legos and everything you can imagine to build or prototype anything. It’s full of color, interesting stations, dimension, and a huge built- to- scale sewn elephant hanging in one corner courtesy of a fablabber abroad. This is a place to create and if you weren’t creative before, you can’t help but want to dream something up and create it right here. It’s a hub of invention. It’s exciting and ripe for every kind of possibility. One station is called “Lifelong Kindergarten” whose lifelong goal is to create a world full of playfully creative people, who are constantly inventing new possibilities for themselves and their communities.
Two particular projects of interest include a computer clubhouse after-school center aimed at low-income youth to express themselves creatively through new technologies and the fantastically awesome drawdio which is a pencil that draws music. Yup, you read that right. You draw musical instruments on paper and play them with your fingers. I know, brilliant. For a moment, I experienced what it was like to be a 4 year old again and it reiterated for me how important early childhood education is. However, it shouldn’t stop there – we should constantly be experiencing and envisioning new ideas and experimentation as adults – hence lifelong kindergarten. One other thing I should mention of the Media Lab is that we were shown something called a 3-D printer. I was blown away by this, even though my engineer husband tells me this is not new technology and is quite standard prototyping equipment. Still, I thought it was pretty cool and it was new to me. Basically, you design it on the computer and send it to the 3-D printer where it “prints” the object in 3-D. I’m probably oversimplifying but we were all mightily impressed. Some of the examples ranged from a small globe of the world, to a gargoyle to a tiny chess piece about a half inch tall. All this technology, all this experience, what could bringing this to a community do? If I’d been exposed to this in high school or as a child, my track might have been completely different.
So, Fablab. As explained in a post I wrote a few months ago, is essentially a way to adapt technology and scientific innovation into lower-income communities. Fablab is the brainchild of the Center for Bits and Atom’s Director, Neil Gershenfeld . We got to meet him and yes, were blown away to be in the same room with someone that is literally thinking, technologically, 20 years ahead of now. Just so you can get a sense of what it was like, he was typing in DOS commands to show us a powerpoint. I was impressed. But I’m a luddite compared to what goes on there. Quick food for thought : what are your thoughts on everyone having their own star-trek like replicator in 20 years? Essentially you’d have a personal fabrication laboratory.
How did CAP/TI end up here? Good question. We have been approached by an inspired corporation in the community that wants to implement a Fablab in Tulsa. They want to give back to the community in a way that promotes workforce skills development, non-traditional exposure to technology, and maybe even be able to recruit fablabbers to come work for them. It could also be a place where students, engineers, poor, old, young, artists, children, anyone in the community could come teach, learn, invent, and make anything. Maybe someone would be inspired to go to college or tech school from the experience. Maybe someone would start a business. Maybe someone might become inspired to teach. Maybe some of our families will gain marketable skills or start businesses themselves or be inspired to go to school. The possibilities are endless. As Neil explained, like a library, this is a technological library of sorts. The goal is to expose – you don’t always come in with a specific outcome or end goal – sometimes it’s just to experience or learn new information. Being a librarian, this resonated with me. The many times have I watched someone pick up a random book that sitting on a table or a book cart and became caught up in it is too many to count.
Where does CAP fit in? Well, we’re still trying to answer that question and will hopefully be able to fashion some ideas and conclusions in the next few days. It’s also imperative that we start engaging the community because it is a community-driven effort if we are to place something like this in the Tulsa community. I want to relay my experience with Fablab because I think it’s the only way I can make my point and it’s the only experience I have with the program right now and I think Tulsa has a good amount of potential to have something like this. You can get the nuts and bolts of the program through the website and any simple google search. You can read the amazing story of a child who at 8 years old designed a circuit to test for bad milk or a fablabber in Norway that designed a circuit tracking device to put on sheep. Also, check out MIT grad student, Amy Sun’s page on her experiences setting up Fablabs. Here stories are enough for a few posts. Oh, she’s also a founding member of Battlebots. And if you still aren’t amazed, ask about her experience setting up a Fablab in Jalalabad, Afghanistan this past summer and driving an armored vehicle from the airport to her site in record time. I won’t even get into her issued weapons.
So, at around 2:3o on Thursday, the TI team was driven to the South End Technology Center in Boston (SETC) where we would have a hands-on Fablab Experience. Once we got there we met Mel King. Mel is a tremendous asset to the Boston community and has spent his life as community organizer, self-described politician, and lastly someone that cares deeply about the people in his community that lack opportunity. Do a google search on Mel King and you will be humbled. We met with him and had a thought provoking discussion of how the Fablab works in Boston. Basically, because of his stature and deft skills as a community organizer Mel had been able to rally the efforts of the schools and many, many non-profits in the area to gain interest in the program.
Many of the fablabbers are low-income youth that are motivated to make a difference in the community once they have an experience in the Fablab. We were given a list of current projects which I will scan and post probably later in the week. The lab also sees a rich blend of cultural diversity, people from all walks and ages. The lab itself is basically about 600 square feet and houses about 20 computers as well as some basic prototyping equipment that includes a laser cutter, lathes, CAD/CAM design and programming tools, circuits and microcontrollers, 3-D machines , minimill, vinyl cutter, and molding and casting equipment. It’s essentially a factory in a box. After the discussion, Monica and Steven left for another meeting and Micah and I were left to our devices of creating something in the Fablab.
With the help of our wonderful host Sherry Lassiter, program manager for the Center for Bits and Atoms, we were able to design our project from concept to creation. We used some basic drafting software which was surprisingly easy to use, but took some time to perfect our creations because we were making 3-D creations that required tabbed slots which required detailed measuring – something I like to avoid, but managed. I like to say that I purposely designed the wobble in my 3-D star. After that, we prototyped it on cardboard on the laser cutting machingewhich is also really easy to use. You’re supposed to protoype it at least 2x on cardboard before you move onto acrylic or material of choice. However, whenever you send something to machine you have to watch because there’s a slight risk of fire which happened to me at one point. Nothing that a spray bottle couldn’t put out. Micah’s creation was pretty perfect and he experienced no fires. However, he did have to recut and recut on his acrylic. I’m giving you the condensed version of the creation experience which all in all took about two hours. We, unfortunately, didn’t have time to make circuits. Maybe I’ll get to do that here someday.
After two hours, the Fablab started to fill up with people. One woman in particular came down and sat next to me. She was impressed with my creation and wanted to know how she could do it. She had been taking computer classes since June and after learning, was encouraged to teach what she has learned. She’s still teaching but wanted to also take advantage of the Fablab. Part of what I haven’t mentioned is the Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn concept which is pretty simple. You teach what you just learned. Currently, the fablab in Boston has had tremendous success with this especially among the youth fablabbers. My next step was to teach this willing student who I had just met what I had just learned. It all happened pretty organically and it was pretty exhilirating.
So, what’s next? Where do we go from here? Ultimately, every Fablab looks different for every community. For us, it’s cutting out the pattern to see what we can create here. Lastly, this is about community, this is not a program specifically for “poor people” because who wants to be singled out? A lot of what is happening in helping low-income families is also about community building. Aren’t we all trying to help each other out no matter what station in life? And isn’t learning and education a resonating sign of democracy? CAP engages in early childhood education because every child should start on an even playing field. Community building is also a lesson we learned with the Community Builders team on Friday and even a theme that resonated in the Jobs for the Future meeting. How does Tulsa build an engaged and collaboratively networked community whether it be in affordable housing, workforce development, or education? Who are the weavers? How do we learn to become community weavers and how do we spot them?
Micah and I had a brainstorming session yesterday where we used post-it notes to mind map some major questions we have specifically concerning Fablab which revolve around: Why CAP? Where would be put a Fablab? What resources do we have? Who’s our Mel? Why Tulsa? What population would we serve? Who has moral ownership? Next week, we’ll be expanding this mindmapping concept to Steven, Monica, and Karen for their thoughts. Your thoughts on Fablab or anything else mentioned in this post? I guess the point of all this is… well dialogue. Let’s begin.