Education MATTERS

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By Ryan G. Van Cleave

The Fab Lab is TOTALLY Fab(ulous)!

When my daughters begged me to take them to the Fab Lab, I assumed they were talking about one of three things:

• Some kind of teeny-bopper dance club

• One of those boutique stores for kids that specializes in high-priced STEM-friendly stuff that more often than not has a “MENSA approved” sticker

• A super-hero lair

I was wrong. The Fab Lab is the shorthand name for the Faulhaber Fab Lab at the Suncoast Science Center. Founded in 2014 as a stand-alone entity with a mission “to inspire and support tomorrow’s innovators through experiential learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” the Fab Lab really got its start a few years prior at the now-defunct GWiz Science Museum. The late Dr. Fritz and his wife, Ping Faulhaber, donated $400,000 to launch a fabrication lab where the end result is almost always a physical product vs something merely digital. To that end, it had high-graded industrial machines, vinyl cutters, CNC routers, and embroidery machines, among other tools, which meant community members could make nearly anything, from plaques to puzzles, gaskets to games, and cups to chairs. The lab received accreditation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is a top honor for fab labs around the world.

When GWiz went under in 2012, the Faulhaber Family Foundation bought back most of the important tools at auction and then worked to set up the new Fab Lab on the campus of Suncoast Technical College. What’s different, though, is that it’s anything but a museum. A better way of thinking about what the Fab Lab is? A shop class of the future that’s open to any community member, from students to retirees. All it requires is a reasonable monthly fee for unlimited use of the facilities and machines.

Community Engagement Manager Kati Burns explains the value of having the Fab Lab here, saying “the lab provides a space for multi-generational, hands-on experiential learning and access to equipment only found at manufacturing facilities or select universities.” She notes, too, that it’s more than just a workplace with cool tools. They have several volunteers on hand to share their expertise in areas such as computer programming, electrical engineering, and machining.

It makes perfect sense that the Fab Lab has a robust high school volunteer program. Who wouldn’t want to work at a place with 3D printer, plasma cutters, and gear head lathes?

Burns explains that “we’re proud to say our volunteers have been accepted to Purdue, MIT, Georgia Tech, Tufts, and the list goes on and on. All of these students credit their experience at the Fab Lab to achieving their goal of being accepted to the school of their dreams.”

Burns knows firsthand what the Fab Lab can do for a student. Her son, Rocket, was a take-it-apart kind of kid from early on, so to no one’s surprise, he began volunteering and creating at the Fab Lab the minute it opened in May 2015. One of his Fab Lab projects? “Meltdown,” a full-size electronic arcade game built from scratch that plays 60 of the most popular older video games. He’s also partnered with a Pine View graduate and patent attorney to set up, a subscription-based service where hands-on builders like him can purchase boxes of components to experiment with and explore. They all have cool names such as “Raspberry WiFi,” “Cellular Metal,” or “Cache the Planet.” My daughters already are begging me for “Robotics Workshop” and “Circuit Circus” boxes. “We’ve got big plans!” they warn me.

Florida’s “Entrepreneur of the Year,” Nick O’Donnell, used the Fab Lab to create works of art for his company Terraform Design. Burns says that his “parametric design process” uses mathematical algorithms to design furniture and accessories, which he then creates using the CNC Router and laser cutters. His furniture has been featured at Art Basel, an international art fair in Miami, and he now boasts a number of domestic and international corporate clients.

“We’re going to make a giant fire-breathing robot.”

The demand for fab labs has increased nationwide to match the growing interest in STEM careers and education. More and more, students like Rocket and my own daughters come in and get hooked. Those hands-on experiences help science become real and fun.

“We’re going to make a giant fire-breathing robot,” my daughters tell me. And with all the Fab Lab has to offer in the way of manufacturing possibilities, they may well be able to create just such a thing.

Oh, boy.

Burns sums up the importance of the Fab Lab, saying, “It’s remarkable to have a space like this in a community where people of all ages, genders, and educational backgrounds can come together to learn, create, and collaborate without barriers.”

So, come out to the Fab Lab yourself and see what all the buzz is about. (And watch out for giant fire-breathing robots.)


about the Fab Lab, please visit or call 941.840.4394

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