Errors aren’t a problem at the Carnegie Science Center Fab Lab. Mistakes are how makers learn.

By S. Rose Eilenberg

Past the chaos of the interactive Highmark SportsWorks exhibits at the Carnegie Science Center, is a room tucked away in the corner: The Fab Lab.
Short for fabrication laboratory, it is one of more than 500 such workshops throughout the globe. It’s a digital maker space that features laser cutters, 3D printers and other equipment, as well as the computers and software needed to get designs out of people’s heads and into the real world. The Fab Lab offers many different public workshops throughout the year. The Laser-Cut Holiday Ornaments workshop, for example, took place on select Saturdays in December.

“We are trying to make makers, not things,” said Rowan Walker, a Fab Lab Education Facilitator. “The project you walk out with is less important than the knowledge that, ‘Hey, I have an idea in my head, I can make that a physical thing.’”

Beginner-level laser cutting workshops are one of many public classes for people of all ages offered at the Carnegie Science Center Fab Lab, short for “fabrication laboratory.” The Fab Lab is one of more than 500 workshops like it on the globe. Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Science Center.

The laser cutting workshop started with one staff member ushering the next round of participants into the space while another helped folks from the previous session finish up their projects. After each person, or adult and child pair, found a spot at a computer, Fab Lab educators gave a short, easy to understand tutorial on the design software, providing templates for the ornaments and describing potential mistakes. One common slip-up mentioned was when part of the design extends outside of the design area––the area that the laser cutter actually “sees.”

Errors, though, are not a problem at the Fab Lab.

“We want people to make mistakes—that’s how we learn,” said Walker, who recently graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She wants to help people—kids especially, she explained—learn that there is more to engineering than a lot of math and science. The design process is also a huge part of the discipline.

A snowflake ornament made with the Fab Lab laser cutter. Photo by S. Rose Eilenberg

Once each participant was finished with their ornament design, an educator came over to make sure there were no issues, transferred the file to a flash drive, then brought it to the computer connected to the laser cutter. After pressing “go,” the machine came to life and started cutting and engraving. Two young brothers in the class, 11-year-old Brandon and eight-year-old Ryder, watched, mesmerized, as their designs came to life.

The boys weren’t particularly interested in engineering, but their mom, Cody Klosky, signed them up for the class anyway.

“They never know what they’re going to get, then they do it, and they’re like: ‘This is so fun!’”

Classes at the Fab Lab are not just for children.

“This was a fun project to do as a family,” said one woman whose adult children, also in attendance, signed her up for the workshop. It was her first time using a laser cutter.

“It was enlightening and enjoyable to create something together,” she said.

The Fab Lab offers public workshops and classes for people of all ages. In addition to special seasonal workshops, they offer 101-level classes in laser cutting, vinyl cutting, 3D printing, basic circuitry and more. Completing a 101-level class certifies participants to use Fab Lab equipment. Check out their list of public workshops here.