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Fab Lab Beginnings

Fab Labs originated at MIT in 2002 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, with the expectation that they would help technology institutes in developing countries build their own products to become self-sustaining.

In these countries, Fab Lab equipment is often used for small local businesses and practical purposes, according to Sherry Lassiter, a program manager who helps coordinate Fab Lab projects worldwide at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. For example, a man in Kenya creates toilets that can recycle waste and that don’t require plumbing, which helps alleviate the sewage problems in the slums. And designers in India worked on a system to alert farmers when an animal is near a local water supply basin, to ensure that the water stays pure and uncontaminated for humans.

After the first Fab Labs outside of MIT began operating in 2003, more began popping up worldwide, as community colleges and universities also recognized the potential for hands-on STEM education. There are four MIT criteria that each Fab Lab must:

• allow public access to the lab;

• subscribe to a Fab Lab user’s responsibilities of keeping safe and maintaining the lab;

• share a common set of tools and processes like 3D printers so that labs can collaborate internationally;

• and participate in the global Fab Lab network to ensure a knowledge-sharing community.

“Schools are becoming very interested in this approach to integrated, interdisciplinary STEM education,” says Lassiter.