A Look Inside the Innovative "Fab Lab" Course

A Look Inside the Innovative "Fab Lab" Course

Smack in the middle of the School, through a set of glass doors, sits the Hayot Center for Innovation (HCI), named in honor of Head of School Emerita Dr. Patricia T. Hayot, who retired in 2020. Within that creative, multi-purpose space, another wondrous room brims with machines, tools and possibility. This is Chapin’s fabrication laboratory, known as the “Fab Lab.”

Fittingly, the Fab Lab was made possible in part with funds raised from the Class of 2020 Senior Gift, which went toward the reimagining and repurposing of what was previously Chapin’s fifth floor gymnasium.

Central to the vision of the HCI is to nurture in our students the fortitude to solve problems, develop skills and techniques and, most importantly, to demonstrate a maker mindset, which requires persistence, curiosity and passion. Thus, myriad STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math)-focused activities take place inside.

One thrilling example of such programming is a new, cross-disciplinary course in Upper School that is making the most of this amazing hub of discovery by giving students the support they need to invent, design and construct using the impressive array of sophisticated equipment and materials at their disposal.

“We are exploring the intersections of art, engineering, programming and fabrication through a series of open-ended challenges,” explained Upper School Technology Integrator Anthony Larson, who teaches the year-long elective, appropriately titled “Fab Lab.”

During a recent visit, a small group of students in Classes 10-12 were hard at work on their latest endeavor. Moving freely between the larger HCI space, with its long tables and comfortable stools, and the more compact Fab Lab, these eager inventors were in the midst of making intricate lamps from concept to completion.

To kick off this lesson, the students were introduced to the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), who fashioned mathematically inspired woodcuts and lithographs in repetitive, tile-like patterns called tessellations. Using Adobe Illustrator, they learned how to produce vector artwork, which is a graphic form comprising points, lines, curves and shapes. Next, they were tasked with designing their own Escher-like tessellations using the program’s mirror mode.

After crafting their prototypes, which would form the top and sides of their lamps, taking pains to ensure that each measurement was precise, the students advanced to the next step: translating their digital files to physical components. To do this, they turned to a pair of state-of-the-art laser cutters, one in the HCI and the other in the Fab Lab. Mr. Larson helped guide them through this procedure, which was a bit more complicated than sending a traditional document to the printer.

Instead of paper, laser cutters are equipped to cut, etch and engrave on materials like acrylic, metal, glass, textiles and wood. For the lamp project, the students were using sheets of thin, wood-based product.

To test their ideas – and to avoid wasting supplies – they initially loaded cardboard into the machines. Only when they were pleased with the look and specifications of their “dummies” – and this often took several attempts – could the students move on to the wood phase.

On this lively afternoon, Mr. Larson’s class was thoroughly enjoying the artistry and technology of their lamp-making challenge. Although they were at different stages in the process – some were revising their Illustrator files; others were watching their designs slowly take shape on the whirring laser cutters; and a few were gluing their panels together – their dedication and pride were unmistakable.

When they completed their last element, which was to wire the bulb fixtures, their patterned creations, including a collection of stars and triangles; flowers made from dots; graceful squids; a sea of squiggly lines and circles; and a forest of angular trees, were guaranteed to beautifully brighten any room.

For their winter assignment, the Fab Lab students are preparing to build their own pinball game as this ambitious, innovative and fun course continues.