I feel like an outsider encroaching on their territory. I circle the building, nervous to step inside. Trying new things, and talking to new people are not things that I am used to. Like most people, I like average. Average is comfortable.
The women engineers of California State University, Bakersfield are anything but average. They choose to venture into a territory that is dominated by men and has been for centuries. By working and learning inside of CSUB’s Fabrication Laboratory, they are challenging themselves to think bigger and bolder.
Like little red blips on a radar, Fab Labs are popping up all over the world. In June of 2014, the Fab Foundation announced that it would be opening up to 10 “Fab Labs” across the United States with the help of a 10 million dollar grant from Chevron Corporation. According to the Fab Foundation, these laboratories will provide, “approximately 20,000 students and adults hands-on science and technology experience.” With the help of Chevron, Fab Labs introduce creative ways to get young adults, as well as children interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Fab Lab is a global community of practice unified by the shared desire to share knowledge, collaborate and to “make almost anything.”
-CSUB Fab Lab website
There are 451 Fab Labs in the world today. Out of those 451, only five are located in California. Out of those five, one is located on the campus of California State University, Bakersfield.
The Fab Lab at CSUB is housed in a small, modest building, lining the outermost boundaries of the campus. From the outside, it looks like an average classroom. It’s tan stucco walls, metal door, and rectangular structure would not seem out of the ordinary to a passerby. If no one told you it was there, you probably would never know. The only things that announce what the building is housing are the decals that are plastered on the large windows that encase the left half of the building. One reads “Fab Lab” in an obnoxiously large red and blue font and the other is Chevron’s logo almost hidden away in the top most corner of the window.
Typically, the lab sits empty, with the exception of classes that provide hands on experience for students taking the courses. Although the lab is open to the public, the only people that usually enter through it’s doors are students enrolled in the courses. Not many people know that the lab exists.
It’s laser cutters can cut straight through wood, acrylic, plastic, fabric, and an abundance of other materials. The CNC router is a computer controlled cutting machine that can carve even the most intricate designs into wood. The molding and casting equipment allows individuals to make 3D objects out of liquid latex, rubber, resin, and silicone. The mini-mill can be used to make circuit boards that connect electronic components of machines that make them function. However, for Diana Medina, a sophomore studying engineering at CSUB, the most interesting piece of equipment in the lab is the 3D printer. “I think it’s everyone’s favorite,” said Medina, “mainly because it gives you almost endless possibilities on what you can create.” She recalls working inside of the lab for the first time, creating her first object with the 3D printer.
Students were craning their necks trying find a good place to catch a glimpse of the machine in action. It is not very large, smaller than your average moving box, which often makes it difficult to see what’s being printed if you’re not the operator. On this day, Medina was. She sat at the controls and browsed through the pre-designed files for the printer to begin generating.
She would one day like to print her own designs, but for now she is content using the pre-programmed ones.
The instructor told her to chose something simple. Something that was small, but could show how the machine works. A design with enough detail so the laboratory’s visitors could see how the polymer was stacked, layer upon layer, creating the 3D object.
Within half-an-hour of choosing her design, Medina held in her hands her first 3D printed work. A small blue elephant, which symbolized her first steps into engineering.
You would think that you would have to be a science, technology, engineering, or math major to gain access to the Fab Lab and its top-of-the-line equipment, however it is open to the public. According to CSUB’s website, Fab Labs “provide the opportunity for people with little technological expertise to develop highly complex inventions using technology previously only available to engineers.” By opening it to the public, CSUB is allowing for more individuals to fully experience and understand the opportunities that the machines in the lab provide.
Although the Lab is not open 24/7, individuals can gain access by emailing CSUB’s Fab Lab specialist Matt Chalker. Chalker is an advocate of STEM programming and once worked as a part-time consultant developing STEM curriculum for Citizen Schools, a non-profit organization that, “partners with middle schools to expand the learning day for children in low-income communities across the country.” Chalker believes that it is important to educate children and young adults in STEM fields.
“Our Fab Lab is intended to be a community resource.”
-CSUB Fab Lab website
CSUB is still working on getting their Fab Lab community-wide recognition. Because not many people know what a Fab Lab even is, it is difficult to get the word out. Chalker hopes to eventually have young students take field trips to CSUB’s lab to learn more about it. Medina believes that, “if the Fab Lab is advertised enough in events like engineering day (which is held each year on CSUB’s campus) then it would entice younger generations to study STEM fields.” By showing children that there are resources available to help them to further their interests in these fields, a new window for learning will open. They will be given the opportunity to create and experiment in ways never before thought possible.
According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Commerce, “the number of STEM jobs is estimated to grow by 17 percent between 2014 and 2018.” The estimate does not detail the percentage of women that will account for a portion of that 17 percent, but based on past estimates, it is not a large amount. Less than 30 percent of individuals in each STEM field are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
STEM programming should be introduced in early education. Because 20 percent of all jobs require knowledge in at least one of the STEM fields, according to research conducted by The Brookings Institution, children should begin to associate with these fields early on. Young women especially, are in need of influence to pursue these careers.
According to Forbes, “women hold only 27 percent of all computer science jobs.” This gender gap is caused by young women being discouraged from pursuing STEM centered work fields. According to Judith Pratt, a communications professor who specializes in gender studies at CSUB, young women and men often seek to emulate individuals of the same gender that they look up to. When young women do not see their role models pursuing careers in engineering or math, they are less likely to do so. Showing young women that they can pursue jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math will likely shrink the gender gaps in these fields.
Mckenzie Pardue, a sophomore studying engineering at CSUB, says her interest in the field began when she was young. “I have always been interested in seeing how things work” Pardue said, “I used to open up radios to see how they operate.” Luckily, Pardue has the support of her family who encourage her to reach for bigger and better things each day. Pardue has yet to visit the lab, but likes the idea of having it open to the public. She only hopes other young women are as inquisitive as she was when she was younger.
CSUB’s Fab Lab is a place where women and men can experiment with each machine and create objects that they once could only imagine. The Fab Lab is equal opportunity, allowing people of all genders, races, and ages to explore the machinery within.
Medina likes the lab because she is not told how or what to create and she can make almost anything. In her classes, she often feels out numbered. “About 70 percent of my classes are populated by men,” Medina said. Because STEM programs are often dominated by men, women can sometimes feel unwelcomed. The lab is a safe place for women like Medina to experiment. Here she is not excluded because of her gender, but accepted as a fellow engineer.
In February of 2015, Medina was assigned her first official project as an engineer. She isn’t allowed to go into the details, but she will be working with circuit boards and possibly the 3D printer again in the future. Her project will take at least two years to complete Medina said, but she looks forward to it. She hopes to encourage young women to follow their hearts and not their peers.