A Secondment to Fab Lab Berlin

Fiona Scott is currently undertaking a number of secondments with the MakEY project as a representative of The University of Sheffield. Over the next eight months, her Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship will give her an opportunity to visit a diverse range of makerspaces in five countries: Germany, Iceland, Denmark, Canada and Australia. The fellowship will give her a unique cross-cultural insight into the activity currently taking place within this rapidly growing field. Here, she shares her reflections from her first secondment with Fab Lab, Berlin.

“The phenomenon of ‘maker’ spaces has been growing across the globe in recent years. The ‘maker’ movement refers to a DIY culture in which individuals make, hack and tinker with a range of materials and digital devices. As Dougherty (2012) suggests, many people are embracing the enriching experience of creating something new and learning new skills. Part of this wider movement, Fab Lab, Berlin are an open digital fabrication studio where members of the public can learn how to use a variety of cutting edge technology, including 3D printers, laser cutters and contemporary textile lab. As a complete outsider entering the world of makerspaces, several things struck me during my time at Fab Lab, Berlin.

Firstly, it was a fascinating introduction to the culture of ‘making’. Newcomers to the Lab are typically initiated into the space through attending one of Fab Lab’s free (donation optional) workshops, available to the general public for free and in a range of activities, including 3D printing, laser cutting and textile design/ making. I attended one of Fab Lab’s workshops on 3D printing at the beginning of my secondment. The experience made me simultaneously aware of how alien the technology and associated language felt to me, but also how simple it could be in practice to get started with a new and seemingly daunting craft such as 3D printing. At its most basic, 3D printing works by feeding a plastic material referred to as ‘filament’ through an ‘extruder’ at high temperature. It is then deposited onto the receiving plate. I learnt to use the i3 Berlin, a 3D printer designed and developed right here at Fab Lab, Berlin. The i3 is capable of printing 3D models up to a size of 20x20x20cm. Of course, before any of this printing can take place, a 3D model must be designed and loaded onto the printer. 3D models can be designed in a variety of ways, most commonly via 3D scanning or computer aided design (CAD). Whilst CAD packages such as Solidworks or Fusion 360 enable skilled designers to start from scratch, novices can start with something much simpler in the form of downloadable .stl files. Websites such as Thingiverse offer free 3D models that are ready to download, process and print. Some examples of starter projects include small items like key rings, plant pots or toys.  Users can also tweak existing designs to personalise their own bespoke models. Makers must then use ‘slicing’ software such as Cura, which will assist them in calculating how the 3D model will be printed. Finally, they must physically load the digital file and physical material in their chosen 3D printer before setting the physical process into action. Once they’ve taken part in an introductory workshop, members of the public can sign up for a moderately priced monthly membership at Fab Lab for unlimited use of the various (bookable) 3D printers.

Day to day, the Lab was host to a range of visitors. It struck me that these users came from very different starting points and with different agendas, but the space provided a unique platform for ad hoc and serendipitous co-working. From amateur hobbyist to textile design student or start-up entrepreneur, the lab’s users individually and collectively tinkered and shared, offering one another encouragement, sharing knowledge and beginning new collaborations. Where those working in the lab were unable to offer time, they were happy to signpost an interested onlooker on to a multitude of online resources that could be used to self-teach. Notably, the Fab Labs tend to have comprehensive and rapidly evolving wikis with detailed information about materials, machines and processes. Beyond that, content and software is readily shared and freely available (e.g. Thingiverse, Cura etc.) In accordance with Halverson & Sheridan’s (2014) observations, it struck me that this open sharing of processes and products across both physical and digital forums was a distinctive feature of the maker space.

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Secondly, regular engagement with Fab Lab Berlin by young people remains predominantly at the older end of the spectrum. A regular ‘Junior Designers Meetup’ attracts girls aged 14-17 to the lab to design, customize and make. Day to day, however, the space in Berlin feels quite ‘adult’. However, I was also able to meet up with Deborah Rodrigues Moreira, Founder of Glück Workshops. Deborah’s workshops encourage children (and sometimes adults!) to play, create and experiment at the intersection of art and technology. Deborah believes in the notion of creativity as a skill that young children can develop to ‘survive and thrive’, both in the present and in later life. Her workshop projects for young children range from the very simple (e.g. finger printing as the basis for telling stories with simple characters) to the technologically advanced (e.g. making a robot that draws). In all cases, they take creative ideas as the starting point to doing something exciting with very little. Almost all blend ‘tradtional’ creative techniques and materials with newer technologies (including the digital). Her inspiring workshops (which might be of interest to families as well as teachers) are available to families absolutely for free via the Glück Workshops YouTube channel.

Deborah’s case studies illustrated how effective both technologically advanced and very simple (predominantly non-digital) techniques activities can be in engaging young children in makerspace contexts. They also drew my mind back to the tensions between children’s free tinkering and the need for adult guidance and supervision in a makerspace context. On the one hand, researchers such as Thiel (2015) highlight how the small, in-the-moment pedagogical decisions that adults make in their interactions with children might create boundaries around the creative potential of a child and a set of materials. For example, when a child is told they can or can’t do something, it becomes part of an internalised ideology. In turn, these ideologies become “part of the assemblages children
carry within their bodies to adulthood, impacting what materials and discourses the child engages, possibly limiting creative risk taking” (p.41). Thiel’s theory suggests that “muchness” occurs when children’s play is “unstopped by challenges or frustrations” (p.41). On the other hand, it was very clear that Deborah’s careful but minimal scaffolding of the children’s activities provided contexts within which even very young children were enabled to engage in exciting creative activities beyond their solo capabilities and produce exciting outputs. Deborah’s laser cut workshop at Fab Lab is a beautiful example of this – the children going home with laser-cut brooches they designed by hand themselves [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrAVaK29zco].

My time at Fab Lab Berlin, then, opened up a range of new questions in relation to very young children’s engagement with makerspaces. In particular, I’ll be continuing to think about what very young children do or don’t (or can or should) have control over in a makerspace context, in what ways they are being ‘creative’ and how bounded or not this is by adult intervention. Since I witnessed relatively little engagement with children directly during my time in Berlin, a further question I will be taking forward is the extent to which makerspaces fulfill the emancipatory promise suggested by Blikstein (2013), who argues that the toolkits and technologies present in makerspaces can reveal children’s “powerful and generative” (p. 6) ideas and intellectual passions. I am particularly interested to consider which children are engaged and thus included in these potentially transformative experiences.

I will be spending the next month in Iceland, experiencing a completely different set of contexts for making. Undoubtedly, this time will provide an opportunity to explore some cross-cultural similarities and differences in maker culture.”

References

Blikstein, P. (2013). Digital Fabrication and ’Making’ in Education: The Democratization of Invention. In J. Walter-Herrmann & C. Büching (Eds.), FabLabs: Of Machines, Makers and Inventors. Bielefeld: Transcript Publishers.

Dougherty, D. (2012). The maker movement. Innovations, 7(3), pp. 11-14.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), pp. 495-504.

Thiel, J. J. (2015). “Bumblebee’s in Trouble!” Embodied Literacies during Imaginative Superhero Play. Language Arts, 93(1), p. 38-49.

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