A "fab lab," or fabrication lab, is a small-scale workshop offering personal digital fabrication. Fab labs are equipped with digital design tools, electrical platforms, and hardware and software technology to make things cheaply and quickly.
Blue Ridge School District's old library is filled with the excited murmur of students' voices and the sound of machines whirring as they churn out laser-cut signs and create plastic pieces to be turned into 3-D models. The once-quiet space in Lakeside, Arizona, has found new life as the 4-H Fab Lab, a joint partnership between the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension 4-H program and the Blue Ridge district.
The fabrication laboratory, or Fab Lab for short, is the ultimate in science, technology, engineering and math programming for students and eventually the entire Navajo County community.
"The idea started a year ago," says Steve Gouker, associate agent with 4-H Youth Development and Agriculture Production.
Gouker and Blue Ridge High School physics teacher Kevin Wooldridge, who is also a volunteer 4-H leader, wanted to come up with a way to provide math, science, physics and computer learning in one place. While 4-H has traditionally revolved around agriculture, organizers say the program has always focused on science, technology, engineering and math, too. That focus has increased in recent years.
Gouker and Wooldridge approached the school district and UA Cooperative Extension and proposed a partnership to make the space that would be available to 4-H members and students in Navajo County and across the state. A year later, the STEM fab lab for students was unveiled.
The grand-opening ceremony was held Jan. 19 and attended by students and their families, teachers, community members and local media. All were eager to see the Fab Lab for themselves.
Science to the People
"This machine alone costs $50,000, including set-up," Gouker said, pointing to a fusion laser. "The average person is not going to be able to go out and buy this, and the Fab Lab makes it available."
A fab lab is a shared collection of digital fabrication equipment and electronics platforms where students can create from beginning to end. Students have the tools to make everything from printed circuit board pieces for plastic 3-D models to posters, etched pictures and planters for a hydroponic garden. A local dentist's office even did a trial run in the Fab Lab to learn how to make dentures.
The machines, which include vinyl printers, UF flatbed printers and a high-precision benchtop CNC machine that engraves printed circuit boards and soft materials, were donated by companies such as Roland, Ultimaker and Epilog.
Woolridge and Gouker say this is the first 4-H fab lab in the country. Blue Ridge School District is the first public school in Arizona to have a facility like this.
"Wealthy schools can afford something like this. Poorer schools can't. We wanted to create a program that gives access to all students, regardless of where they come from," Woolridge said.
Students and parents are looking forward to the opportunities the Fab Lab provides.
"This is where fabrication happens. This is how companies make stuff on a bigger scale. It's real-world knowledge and application in a place you can easily access," said Larry Garrison, a teacher whose son, Josh Garrison, is a senior at Blue Ridge High.
"Science can be intimidating, scary. Many people either say they did well, or 'I'm not so good at science,'" Garrison said. "The Fab Lab lets people understand how science works and how it applies to you, as an individual, as a company.
"As a parent, I like it because it allows my son to get involved with technology," Garrison continued. "He's going to be going into the workforce and he's already going to be able to understand how to do these things, and say, 'I know how to work with these programs.'"
Josh spent part of his winter break helping Woolridge and Gouker set up the Fab Lab and learning the technology. Now he assists other youth with the various machines.
The Fab Lab is open to students during school hours, and to 4-H clubs and members after 3 p.m. during the school week. It is also open all day on weekends and when school is out for the summer. Gouker says the plan is to make the Fab Lab available to members of the local community for a small membership fee.
The mission of UA Cooperative Extension, under the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is to take the science of the University to the people of Arizona through 4-H and other programs. Gouker and Woolridge agree the Fab Lab does just that.
"Taking science to the masses through the kids — that's what 4-H is," Wooldridge said.