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Community-based labs nurture young talent

Fab Labs, which began at MIT, could bloom under bill in Congress

Volunteer Brad Presler at Boston’s Fab Lab.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Volunteer Brad Presler at Boston’s Fab Lab.

When he was little, Jemuel Stephenson had the bug to make things.

So when he was 10, his mother took him to Fab Lab, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology creation that provides free access to sophisticated­ computer-controlled manufacturing equipment.

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“It was just like heaven,” Stephenson, now 18, said recently as he was using the equipment at one of the labs, a mobile facility sponsored by MIT, to make an acrylic model of a turbocharger for car engines.

A senior at Community Academy of Science and Health, Stephenson is going to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania this fall to study engineering. And he is confident his hands-on experience at Fab Labs, creating things as diverse as cases for iPhones and furniture, gives him a leg up on other students new to the subject.

“The Fab Lab definitely helped me develop and nurture my ­passions,” he said.

Shameya Bass demonstrates her project.

Josh Reynolds for The Globe

Shameya Bass demonstrates her project.

The mobile facility, as well as a Fab Lab at the South End Technology Center, are part of a patchwork of some 40 labs around the United States and 80 worldwide. Their fortunes range from well-endowed to hand-to-mouth; the South End one, for example, was short of money and closed to the public for the better part of 2011.

But their financial standing — not to mention availability — could take a huge turn if a US representative from Illinois persuades Congress to create a nationally chartered network for the US labs, to improve their fund-raising abilities, particularly for government money. The measure, which Democrat Bill Foster introduced in March, also calls for placing a Fab Lab in every congressional district.

‘It’s very empowering for a young person to actually build something.’

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His goal is, in essence, is to bring the tools of innovation to Main Street.

“It’s very empowering for a young person to actually build something,” Foster said. “Kids no longer take apart automobile engines. You can’t realistically take apart an iPod, like you could a radio. This is giving kids the opportunity for innovation.”

Although Foster’s legislation would not provide direct government funding, it would establish a nationally chartered nonprofit network, run through the Fab Foundation.

Chartered status is essentially an endorsement from the government and would allow agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to provide funding, said Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, who created the first Fab Lab.

He said the network would be in a better position than individual labs to apply for grants and donations from other funders, from philanthropies to workforce training and development programs.

The first Fab Lab was opened by MIT in 2003 in the South End as an outreach component of a grant from the National Science Foundation. The school wanted to provide a scaled-down version of its own high-end digital fabrication lab to boost innovation and improve manufacturing skills.

Now MIT has taken a mostly advisory role. The university maintains the labs’ shared online network and provides blueprints for new labs. It also funds the mobile lab, a roving trailer packed with equipment you would find in a stationary Fab Lab.

Unlike the one in the South End, most of the other Fab Labs were created by community organizations; the National Science Foundation funded the first 12 labs, while the rest raised money on their own.

The Fab Lab concept spread mostly by word-of-mouth and through MIT’s providing outreach to communities.

Some were started in public schools and community colleges and receive public funds; others are private entities that charge for some services but also­ raise money to maintain access for low-income residents.

Although the individual labs are not represented by a central organization, they are loosely organized under the Fab Foundation, a nonprofit group that aims to support the labs.

On one recent afternoon, the South End lab was, as usual, full of teens. Simon Phung, 14, was making stickers printed with a friend’s name, while 20-year-old fab extraordinaire Phi Ngo was training volunteers to teach youngsters how to use the machines.

A tinkerer by nature, Brad Presler was developing a prototype of a heated planter box with automatic controls that uses LED lights to grow greens in any environment. He hopes to sell it to large home-supply companies.

Like many other budding entrepreneurs, he did not have the money or equipment to develop his business until he found the lab.

“This is a huge find,” Presler said of the lab. “This is exactly what I needed for a long time.”

The director of the South End lab, former state legislator and Boston mayoral candidate Mel King, said it costs several hundred thousand dollars a year to run the facility, with the outlay for equipment and computers running to about $50,000.

Although MIT pays the lab’s rent and provides some materials, the Fab Lab survives mainly on fund-raising and donations.

King appeared frustrated that the congressman’s bill would not directly provide money to labs such as his, which are in need of resources.

“If they want to see more people have access and become skilled and knowledgable, why wouldn’t they provide resources to make it happen?” King said.

Foster, a Harvard-trained physicist and businessman, tried to get the labs chartered with legislation in 2010; this time his bill has 15 cosponsors so far.

Foster is optimistic because Democrats and Republicans alike want to provide young adults with skills for careers in manufacturing and advanced technologies, he said, and the Fab Labs provide hands-on learning.

“Anyone who is interested in this should go see a Fab Lab,” he said. “You come away from them just smiling. You see the huge range of bright ideas that kids are pursuing, things you never would have guessed.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com.
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