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Powered by Biology

[Originally published March 2016.]

“We have very friendly bees in the Amazon. You can put them in your hand,” Floating Fab Lab founder Beno Juarez said during a recent interview. “More than 40% of the jungle is pollinated by bees, and we are losing these types of bees.”

Digital fabrication can be used in the construction of beehives, most notably for designing biosensors to go inside the hives, which will monitor and report on the health and status of the swarm. A biosensor would, for example, inform the outside world if the bee population inside in the hive started to plummet–and could even diagnose the reason. Biosensors would in no way disrupt the lives of the bees, allowing them to exist as naturally as possible, yet still provide information for the scientists studying them. The FLF team has its eye on regenerating the bee population of the Amazon, and building beehives fitted with biosensors would be a big step in that direction.

Based in Lima, Luis Flores, Julio Valdivia, and Carlos Venegas Jara are creating “biosensors for real-time environmental monitoring on water bodies around the world,” Carlos wrote. “The main goal is the creation of a network of autonomous, sensing, observant, and cleaning robots.”

Biorobots. Woah.

Luis elaborated: their project is in the research and development phase of a team of biorobots, which will use biosensors to detect specific contaminants in the water. They’re working with the FLF “to develop a biosensor for detecting oil, and bioremediation with bacteria that eats oil (petroleum.)”

PetroPeru may cause disaster after disaster, but positive projects everywhere are fighting back. Based in Boston, Kate Adamala develops biosensors to help monitor conservation efforts. Beno was one of her students at the biohack academy How To Grow Almost Anything (HTGAA), during its first year. Her specialty is synthetic cells. She extracts all the separate, necessary parts of a cell and glues them back together, creating a “completely controllable biological system.” Biosensors are essential to conservation methods because they introduce no foreign organisms.

By studying bioregeneration, Kate believes we can delve into discovering how life first started and how life might continue on other planets. Very much the Citizen Scientist, she runs the BioFab project at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT and has met most of the FLF team and biohacker community of Lima. “Biological experiments are on the rise,” she said. “It’s not an exclusive club anymore, so everyone can do it. A biohacking community is a great way for people to do research in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

As mentioned in last month’s blog article, Kate and Ilaria La Manna have been developing a bracelet for children to wear that can test heavy metal levels in the water. Beno likened the project to a biosensor. According to Kate, she and Ilaria worked together on the design, and Kate helped pick out the chemistry formulas. Ilaria is currently working on the prototype. Projects like this are inspirational; the FLF and its team members are working within the biological framework to solve environmental problems. Nature herself offers up solutions–we only have to look for them.

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Strategic Design

[Originally published January 2016.]

We’re making nano assemblers that build cells, we’re making micro assemblers that build integrated circuits, we’re making macro assemblers that build jumbo jets, we’re making giant assemblers that build geological scale features, and we’re working on space assemblers to build space civilizations, all based on this fundamental transition of digitizing fabrication, not by making the design digital, but by actually putting codes into the construction of the material. It fundamentally is a third digital revolution.

-Professor Neil Gershenfeld.

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Powered by People

[Originally published November 2015.]

October and November were important months for the glocal Floating Fab Lab team. The project’s focus is shifting from the administrative, planning stage to the application and implementation stage. To that end, they organized a special event in Lima and Iquitos in early November, which several institutions attended, including MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the Environmental Ministry of Peru, and Fab Labs Costa Rica and Argentina, to learn about the status of the project.

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Citizen Scientists

[Originally published October 2015.]

The Floating Fab Lab is an ambitious project that aims to address local Amazon community needs in a fully sustainable fashion. The project has achieved childhood, a stage it will zip through on its way to adolescence next year.

Throughout the autumn, the Floating Fab Lab team has striven to transition from the planning and administrative stage to the exciting application stage. Everyone has their role. Beno Juarez (Peru), founder and dreamer extraordinaire, has been traveling from Iquitos to Boston, accepting awards from the UN and hosting international interest meetings. More on that in a few days.

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The Conservation Conversation

[Originally published September 2015.]

The following sentence is going to sound absurd, but here it is: The Floating Fab Lab, currently in development, will bob up and down more than 2,000 km of Amazon River, bringing education and access to marginalized communities. That can’t be a real thing, right? It’s straight out of science fiction–or maybe Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

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Let’s Get Corny

Between the two of us Madison and I have visited a lot community gardens over the time zones. But none has captured our imaginations and enthusiasm quite as much as our favorite local Colorado garden. My best friend, Jillian Jackson MPH, happens to live at Mulberry Community Gardens in Fort Collins. She runs programs and harvests out of her backyard, which melds pretty perfectly with her career at the Medical Center of the Rockies with the Healthy Hearts program educating young people about nutrition. Her backyard is a smorgasbord of nutrition and an ideal space for public education.

We have enjoyed our fair share of parties there, too, and they always end in the glow of bonfire and whiskey and friendship. The title hopefully warned you about the vibe of this one.

Mulberry Community Gardens has grown a lot, from humble roots in late 2005 into a full tree of knowledge. When Erich Stroheim bought the property, included 1/18th of an irrigation share. Erich made the irrigation system himself out of PVC piping and small hoses. Lorraine Dunn and several others brainstormed, did the paperwork, and helped him get the garden off the ground. (Into the ground?) Mulberry Community Gardens has always been completely free to visit and use. Jilli estimates “current membership is 20ish people but there are many friends of the garden,” who visit the space intermittently.

Much of the garden is self-constructed, such as all the raised vegetable beds, built by volunteers, and the hoop house on the east end for flowers. The goat hotel (goat-tel) was assembled by Billy Goat moving & storage with a small grant from New Belgium brewing. Additionally, Mulberry Community Gardens members built the outdoor kitchen, the compost corner, and the pergola for the hops.

Louie the goat king with his harem.

“Materials are freecycled, come from donations, and the junk pile tucked near the garage,” Jilli wrote me in January. She shares her home with two roommates, two cats, four rescued goats, and many chickens. The garden grows just about every vegetable you can think of, herbs, flowers, and hops for homebrewing. It also boasts a 25 tree orchard and bees for sacred honey. Jilli’s favorite thing about Mulberry Community Gardens: “Hanging outside drinking beer with friends of all ages and walks of life and getting excited about colorful cauliflowers.” She’s basically the Mulberry Fairy.

Is this real life?

Events at the garden are educational or social, usually both. In the fall, many people of Fort Collins gather to celebrate Heinztoberfest, a homebrew and German potluck, which grows more popular every year. Also around the same time of year, Mulberry Community Gardens participates in the annual Make a Difference Day, a nationwide day of doing good that is celebrated for almost the entire month of October in Larimer County. This past year, more than 1800 citizens from the county completed 94 service projects. The garden also enjoys a close relationship with New Belgium brewing, hosting their employee team building volunteer day. Additionally, they put on occasional concerts every year. Recently they’ve showcased Free the Honey, a band from Crested Butte, and this approaching summer they’ll host a benefit concert with several artists. Also new in the summer: The Poudre School District Gardening in the Classroom workshop will move to its new Mulberry campus.

The crop cycle governs much of their activity, and planting, cultivating, and harvesting always draw people to the garden throughout the year. In the early spring, right around now, Jilli, Lorraine, and their friends are starting to plant and transplant. Later in the spring they’ll complete planting in the ground, and in the summer they’ll plant late season crops as well as launch weeding and weedwacking crusades. The work picks up and ample volunteers arrive to water the plants, clean the grounds, turn the compost, clean chicken coops, collect eggs, and enjoy a beer or four. The garden produces a magnificent plenty.

This urban idealism isn’t without its struggles, however. Jilli cites prey getting after the chickens, occasionally eating them, mostly raccoons and neighbor dogs. And sometimes people pull up crops mistaking them for weeds. At least, Jilli says, they have never been known to run out of beer.

Heinzetoberfest 2016.

Jilli started volunteering at the garden in 2012, and in late summer 2014 she moved in. She’s seen the garden grow as a community presence. “The garden is a lot cleaner and we are accomplishing the crazy goals we used to dream of. Now they’re a reality,” she wrote. “I started as a practicum student for the Colorado School of Public Health, and now I have my own practicum student!”

Jilli loves having a farm in her backyard where she can get fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs. “The space not only grows food but hosts great community events,” she wrote. Each person’s skills can be used. Plus, it’s relaxing and free. “Bring what you can, take what you need!”

Cool peeps at Mulberry Community Gardens.

All photos in this post are credited to Jillian Jackson, Mulberry Community Gardens, Heinzetoberfest 2015 and 2016, and Dave Seal.

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Two Virginia Makerspaces

The maker movement is family. Literally. My own mother, Sharon Hodgkins, joined the Staunton Makerspace following my own immersion in maker culture. An engineer in heart and education, she’d never heard of the diverse DIY experiment that is our global accumulation of makerplaces. The concept spoke to her and she set about finding her own local makerspace in rural Augusta County, Virginia.

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