Smile Politely

The past, present, and future of the Fab Lab: An interview with Lisa Bievenue

In a quiet corner on the south side of the U of I campus, amid a valley of brick and steel and concrete, there is a squat old building nestled among the trees. Though it appears unassuming at a distance, faintly glowing multi-colored letters belie something strange and wonderful, the Fab Lab. Like the proverbial wizard’s workshop, the Fab Lab is filled with a chaotic collection of whirring devices and half-finished projects. Despite its arcane appearance, there is an overwhelming sense of community, wonder, and welcome as people from all backgrounds come together to imagine and create.

The CU Community Fab Lab – or Fab Lab for short – was initially a project overseen by the School of Labor and Employment Relations. When the early stages of planning began in 2008, it was supported by volunteer labor as they fought to turn a disused space into something magical. Over the years, the program has grown as they have brought on paid staff and have even worked with Neil Gershenfeld — the founder of the international Fab Lab program — to expand the scope of what they can offer to the community.

This summer, the Fab Lab is celebrating their 10th anniversary of operating in the Champaign Urbana community. While they wanted to host an event to celebrate the occasion, in light of COVID-19 they are opting to instead release a video celebrating the history of the CU Community Fab Lab which will be released later this month.

I sat down with Lisa Bievenue, Director of Informatics Programs, to talk about her experience with the Fab Lab, their role in the community, and where they plan on going in the future:

Smile Politely: So, what is the Fab Lab all about? Is it just buying and selling materials or is there more to it?

Lisa Bievenue: That’s not really what it’s about. Sure, that happens to make things work, but what it’s about, to use a phrase [coined by one of our volunteers] is: democratize making.

It’s about enabling people who don’t otherwise have access to that kind of equipment to be able to design and create things themselves. It could be that they’re inventing something new, or they’re creating jewelry for themselves, or they’re starting a business, or they’re creating art.

The goal was that someone doesn’t have to have special status to design something. The Fab Lab is a place that anyone could come, and they would be around other people who were also inventers, tinkerers, makers, DIYers. People who would come in and have ideas and be creative and bounce ideas off each other.

So, what the Fab Lab is about, is really bringing people together.

SP: What’s next for the Fab Lab? What’s on the horizon?

Bievenue: Moving forward, we plan to start increasing our presence at local events such as Taste of Champaign, Made Fest, and Pygmalion. We are also in the process of doing strategic planning to figure out exactly what the role of the fab lab should be in the community.

SP: So, would it be safe to say we can expect to see some growth over the next few years?

Bievenue: Oh yeah. Partly that’s because things in the community are changing and on campus. On campus now there’s the Seibel Center for Design and that takes a huge chunk of what the Fab Lab has done for campus. But they’re more geared toward undergraduates and classes so there will still be a role for us to fill.

SP: In your time at the Fab Lab, has there been anything that stands out? Any crazy creations or exciting events that you feel were special?

Bievenue: Um, so, a couple of things [laughs], a guy named Johann Rischau invented something that he left at the Fab Lab that was always amazing to me. He called it a Neuromaker. What it looked like is one of those carts you might pop popcorn in. It was like a CNC so it would carve away at wood with a router. It would be controlled by a computer that could go in X, Y, and Z directions, so it would move the drill to create some design. But he connected it to read brainwaves so that the brainwaves were controlling the router. [I’m not entirely sure how it works, but] the fact that somebody did that at the Fab Lab is pretty cool.

The other thing that really stands out to me is, back about five or six years ago we got a campus grant and we proposed to expand. We wanted to bring the Fab Lab to Southern Illinois, to the Peoria area, and to Champaign and Vermillion counties’ urban units. Especially the Southern Illinois [project] stands out. We put together trailers with pretty much everything we had at the Fab Lab, bought some new equipment. We bought enough equipment that they would be a seed for their own type of Fab Lab, Makers space — whatever they wanted to call it — and they design it for whatever would work for their region.

For Southern Illinois it was the five southernmost counties, which also happen to be the five poorest counties in Illinois. We went in and we worked with high school students as leaders. Then we worked with middle school students. The idea was that the high school students would embrace it and become leaders and expand it after we left.

We sent down four staff who were creative, enthusiastic, young adults and they stayed down there for four or five weeks, so we set them up in cabins. There were some events where we took more people down, but it was really that deep infusion; week-long camps with the 4-H kids and the teens were helping teach the younger kids.

Then most of those teens eventually came to the U of I and reconnected with the Fab Lab. It’s still going on; they’re still coming up to visit and we go down there and fix up the machines.

The 4-H units down there are really fantastic. We couldn’t have done it without them, you can’t just go to a different part of the state and do four to five weeks of outreach and expect it to last for years but it has lasted for years and that’s really to the 4-H unit’s credit.

SP: If someone’s never heard of the Fab Lab, what would you want their one takeaway to be?

Bievenue: It’s completely open and we work really hard at being welcoming. We have people who bring their kids there for summer camp because they need somewhere for their kids to go, but once they see it, they realize all the things they can do there. It’s like a hidden gem of Champaign-Urbana.

Top photo by Alex Slifer.

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