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The Exhibit

According to manager Sabina Barucci, MUSE Fab Lab “is very active, but in a different way.” Situated in the middle of the MUSE Science Museum in Trento, northern Italy, the MUSE Fab Lab is more exhibit than workshop. Jon and I visited on a Thursday, the most popular day for school field trips, and the museum was crawling. Group after group of schoolchildren sidled up to the display to gaze in awe at the 3D printer, which scootched back and forth along its axes, creating some blue knickknack. Half the kids pulled out their phones to snap photos, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to picture them hours later at home sharing modern evidence of the future with their parents.

I asked if this was the first time many of the kids were seeing a 3D printer, and Sabina nodded in the affirmative. In fact, my own first interaction with the breakthrough technology came through my early research of this movement, only about six months ago, and I can still recall my excitement. I felt like one of those kids, eyes wide, realizing this was our reality, that this thrilling new technology was happening now and would only continue to improve in my lifetime.

3D printer at work.

3D printer at work.

Sabina and engineer Matteo Perini were candid in their explanation of MUSE Fab Lab’s limitations. There’s no privacy, they’re roped off into a corner, the whole echoing museum vibrates around them. They’re one of the few Fab Labs that didn’t spring into existence organically through the passion of community members. The museum decided there should be a Fab Lab there, and asked them to make it work. Sabina said that at first members had fought against their unique circumstances, had attempted to cultivate more of a traditional Fab Lab. This proved frustrating, as Renzo Piano, the famous Italian architect who designed the entire complex, has intellectual property rights over the space and forbade anyone to modify it. Which meant they couldn’t even erect a wall to provide at least half a semblance of privacy.

Groups of schoolchildren are led past the Fab Lab many times every hour.

Groups of schoolchildren are shown the Fab Lab many times every hour.

However, after some time, Sabina came to understand the benefits of their situation. They could provide a different approach than more traditional Fab Labs. They work more with institutions, particularly schools, and support many university thesis projects. They approach the community more from a grand organizational direction rather than fostering individual passions. Education is their principle objective. They have the benefit of “diffusion,” since so many students in particular see their space every day. The repercussions of such exposure are immeasurable. There’s no telling how many young minds are infected with the “spark,” as Andrea Pirazzini of Fab Lab Padova called the inspiration to make.

According to Peter Troxler, there are two types of Fab Labs, one that provides facilities and machines for community use and one that provides innovation support. MUSE Fab Lab is the first Fab Lab we’ve been to that falls into the latter category. Still, they are hard at work supporting projects. Matteo told us about something he’s working on with two other Fab Lab users, including a student from the community. Matteo, in charge of the software and electronic parts, had to work “after hours” at the Fab Lab in order to create his Arduino-based irrigation machine. That seems like it might be a bit annoying, being forced to sneak around after all the museum visitors have left, but the positive kickback is that the museum will display the finished urban farming device in a forthcoming exhibit about food, increasing the exposure his project receives. Additionally, Matteo will host lessons on how to make your own irrigation machine, a great opportunity for the young maker.

Another project MUSE Fab Lab is collaborating on facilitates communication between people with autism and their friends and family during mealtime. MUSE Fab Lab is collaborating with a local start-up that develops technologies targeted at autism. The open source project is on Github and involves an interactive placemat. The person with autism touches a button reflecting the emotion they’re feeling, and a voice issues from a speaker. This simplifies the act of expressing oneself and helps others know what the person with autism is experiencing. MUSE Fab Lab is waiting for young collaborators studying cognitive science to further develop the project idea.

Matteo searches on one of the Lab computers for pictures of the cognitive science project.

Matteo searches on one of the Lab computers for pictures of the cognitive science project.

MUSE Fab Lab is virtually free to use, though you have to be in the know. I had been in contact with Sabina for a couple weeks before our visit, and when Jon and I arrived, she and Matteo came out to greet us. They handed us press cards, allowing us free range of the entire museum. Generally it’s difficult to invite people to use the Fab Lab, but Sabina does her best to ensure people have access. She’ll pick you up at the front desk and escort you in so you don’t have to pay the museum entrance fee. She curates only the most interesting and society-enhancing projects, and the most impactful thereof will be displayed in the museum. They have an office downstairs, which is slightly more functional than the Fab Lab exhibit, but access is very controlled.

Jon and I watched students of all ages in MUSE Science Museum lobby as we waited in the  for Sabina to collect us.

Jon and I watched students of all ages in MUSE Science Museum lobby as we waited in the for Sabina to collect us.

On weekends, MUSE Fab Lab transforms. While its target during the week is 75% students, during the weekend, it’s 100% families. A tinkering space geared toward families opened on a lower level of the museum in January and has been testing various activities. On Sundays, the Fab Lab offers a workshop with Little Bits, an opportunity for children and parents to interact and learn from one another. “Family learning is bidirectional,” Sabina said. “I just wish we could involve more mothers.”

Remember STEW, the four pillars of our documentary project? Sustainability, Technology, Education, Women. I finally received some firm facts in my line of questioning regarding the unequal demographic break down. Sabina acknowledged that there are few women in her field, and even fewer the more highly technical you get. “We are like superheroes,” she said with a laugh. She said that it’s a tough thing to analyze, because “once you make an action in gender issues, you create even more issues.” By observing a thing, you fundamentally change that thing. Sabina wants to focus on mothers more in the weekend workshops offered by MUSE Fab Lab so mothers can set a positive example for their daughters (and sons) who are being raised in a culture where there still exists a gender dichotomy in technical fields. Lorenzo Romagnoli of Fab Lab Torino brought up the question with me whether girls and boys learn differently because of nature or nurture. He had no answer but found it an interesting topic, and concluded by wishing there were more women involved in his Fab Lab. When I asked Sabina the nature versus nurture question, she eagerly answered, “We’re in the science center, we know. Biologically, there’s no difference. Definitely nurture.” So there’s the answer: Girls are raised differently with different societal expectations which leads to different adult behaviors. It’s refreshing to see women like Sabina thriving in their field, encouraging other women to shake off decades (and centuries) worth of psychological training. We’re equal, let’s act like it.

MUSE Fab Lab is unlike any other Fab Lab we’ve visited thus far. They had to adapt to their unique location and circumstances, and they’ve evolved to impact the Trento community and beyond. In the future, they’d like to open a secondary space, an external workshop where members can work on projects during the day. Of course, this requires funding, so for now they will continue to work with schools, inspiring students. So many students. How many makers are they creating each and every day? In just a few short years, they’ll have an idea. The younger generation of digital natives will grow up with this technology as a reality, and the potential of such outreach will change our world.

Talk about possibility.

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