What is a Fab Lab?

A Fab Lab, or digital fabrication laboratory, is a place to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invent: a place for learning and innovation. [fabfoundation.org]  In formal education, Fab Labs are a place for students to create tangible artifacts of their learning using a combination of no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech tools and materials.  

Fab Labs are at the top of the maker-education pyramid.  Makered is the idea that kids should create things while learning to explore new ideas, show the topics they’ve mastered and tackle new skills along the way.  If we want our students to make great things, they need a place to do that.  In a perfect world every teacher has a side room filled with everything they could ever need or want for their lessons and students, but in reality we all know that for many teachers, projects involve running to the dollar store the night before trying to gather up materials.  Part of Makered is allowing students a safe space to make things, make mistakes, make a mess and learn while doing it.   

The first level of these spaces (which might be a separate room or part of a room, it may be a rolly cart that can be checked out, or it might be a closet in a classroom that can be opened on maker days and closed on others) is a Tinkerspace.  A tinkerspace is an inviting play space where new makers can feel safe to make great things.  A tinkerspace is full of stuff.  Crafty stuff, messy stuff, junky stuff, so much stuff.   Think wrapping paper tubes, glue guns, string, popsicle sticks, cardboard, paper, etc.  There also might be broken stuff- kids sure can learn a lot from taking apart an old computer keyboard!  In general, tinkerspaces are mostly for younger or new makers to make something in an hour or so that might be an idea, prototype or craft. 

The next level of Makered spaces is a Makerspace.  These spaces have most of the same stuff as a tinkerspace does but with a little more tech and focus.  There may be a 3D printer in a makerspace, or a desktop paper cutter like a Cricut.  You might find some simple electronics like paper circuits or makeymakeys and you’re definitely still going to find lots of random stuff.   Projects in a Makerspace tend to be a bit more intentional.  Students may be trying to create a solution to a problem, instead of just trying to make something that looks interesting or is fun.  There’s still a lot of mess and mistakes and stuff, but there’s more intent, reflection and learning as well.  

And at the top of the pyramid are Fab Labs.  A Digital Fabrication Laboratory is full of high-tech equipment including 3D printers and scanners, laser engravers, CNC routers, mills, large scale printers and vinyl cutters, circuit boards and programming equipment and also a lot of stuff.  In Fab Labs makers are working on creating solutions to big problems, and still making quite the mess as they do so.  There are Fab Labs all around the world, at think tanks, universities, companies, community centers and more.   Some Fab Labs are dedicated to innovation and creating new products to help the world while others are small and are more focused on creating the makers of tomorrow.  

All of these different types of spaces and Makered in general pair nicely with Project Based Learning in that if we, as teachers, want our students to take the time to make something, they should be making something significant and connected to not only academic content, but also to the real world.  The projects that the CMSD Fab Lab uses and hopes to teach teachers to create are transdisciplinary, real world, engaging lessons that get kids learning and making wonderful things. 

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) is proud to be one of the few districts in the country  have a multi-faceted Fab Lab at the district level including a Mobile Fab Lab.  The Mobile Lab visits K-8 CMSD schools to inspire young students with the wonders of digital fabrication and STEM through content focused projects.  These visits are free to CMSD schools. 

Thanks to the generosity of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Goodyear, as of 2019, CMSD also has a stationary Fab Lab at the East Professional Center for teacher use! The EPC STEM +Fab Lab is open for all CMSD employees to learn about Digital Fabrication through workshops, and open lab time.  The EPC Fab Lab also runs a Lending Library program where teachers can learn about and borrow digital fabrication machines and materials to use in their own clasrooms. 

Many schools throughout our district also house Fab Labs or makespaces of their own.  From fully functional Fab Labs at schools like MC2STEM, to makerspaces at schools like Hannah Gibbons, and dozens of FABulous teachers taking on making on their own with 3D printers, paper cutters or electronics in their own classrooms all around the district. 

The CMSD Fab Lab has two major goals: 

  1. Train as many teachers as possible on how to use digital fabrication in their classrooms in meaningful and thoughtful ways. 
  1. Expose and engage as many students as possible in interdisciplinary, rigorous projects in which students create a tangible artifact of their learning through use of a digital fabrication machine, tool, or material. 

Interested in learning more? Check out the information at CMSDfablab.org or contact the Lab manager, Sarah Prendergast Wallace at sarah.wallace@clevelandmetroschools.org  or sign up for our newsletter