Fab Lab hopes to buy permanent space

[Source: “Fab Lab hopes to buy permanent space,” Press Citizen, 6:42 p.m. CST January 22, 2015, by Josh O’Leary]

Zoning hurdles have thwarted the idea of establishing the state’s first Fab Lab inside an Iowa City shopping center, but organizers are still keeping hope alive for a high-tech workshop.

The STEAM Room has been hosting clubs and organizing science events inside the Iowa City Marketplace, formerly Sycamore Mall, since last summer, with the initial goal of one day opening up a permanent operation at the mall.

However, obtaining the necessary heavy commercial zoning from the city at that location would have been far from a sure thing, said STEAM Room director Kirk Cheyney, so the organization is searching for a new home and has kicked off a fundraising campaign.

“It’s easier to move to the right zone than change the zoning law,” Cheyney said. “It would have been a months-long process, and at the end, if they said ‘no,’ it would have been months without having anything to show for it.”

Cheyney first pitched a Fab Lab for Iowa City in 2013 — a digital fabrication laboratory packed with an array of tools and electronics such as CNC machines, 3D printers, laser cutters, a computer lab, woodworking equipment and welding gear, to name just a few of the components.

The idea, which began as an MIT outreach initiative and has since grown into a national network of Fab Labs, is to provide widespread access to the tools of invention. The nonprofit Iowa City lab would rent work spaces and sell monthly memberships, like a gym, giving the public the ability to use equipment they normally wouldn’t have access to.

Organizers set up shop last year in two empty storefronts in the shopping center — which is undergoing major renovations — where they hosted youth summer camps and have continued to hold regular activities in the months since. Robotics clubs from West High and City High, for instance, are frequent users of the lab.

The Fab Lab can only use the mall space through May, however, said Cheyney, and organizers have been scouting properties in south Iowa City. The city had told the lab it would require a zoning change to operate permanently at the mall.

Cheyney said the Fab Lab has four properties on its short list, ranging from 12,000 to 40,000 square feet, with the hopes of purchasing a facility by this spring. To do so, organizers have set a goal of raising $750,000 in the coming months.

Wendy Ford, Iowa City’s economic development coordinator, said the city will support the Fab Lab in its search for a permanent location.

“We’re excited to see them pursue their own building in an appropriately zoned area, and look forward to supporting those endeavors,” Ford said.

The lab already owns an array of equipment, much of which has been donated. Now it just needs a place to house it all, said Cheyney.

“It’s amazing the amount of support we’ve already received and keep receiving,” Cheyney said. “We’ve built our current facility with nothing but volunteers. The support of community has been great; we’re just hoping to kick it up a notch.”

Learn more about the STEAM Room Fab Lab and its capital campaign at www.thesteamroom.org.

Reach Josh O’Leary at joleary@press-citizen.com, 319-887-5415 or on Twitter at @JD_OLeary.

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Kirk Cheyney watches a 3D printer at work on Wednesday inside the STEAM Room Fab Lab’s temporary location at the Iowa City Marketplace. Cheyney, the Fab Lab’s founder, hopes to acquire a new facility for the nonprofit lab. (Photo: Josh O’Leary / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Fab Lab to debut with electronics summer camps

The state’s first Fab Lab, a digital fabrication laboratory packed with manufacturing and electronics equipment accessible to the public, will host a series of youth camps this summer as it nears its opening.

The STEAM Room Fab Lab is organizing three electronics day camps for junior high and high school students in a temporary location at the Iowa City Marketplace, formerly known as Sycamore Mall.

The two-week camps are designed to help teens build skills through hands-on work and experimentation rather than sitting at a desk with a pencil and math book, said Kirk Cheyney, the STEAM Room Fab Lab’s founder.

“We aren’t focusing on math or equations or any of that stuff,” said Cheyney, an Iowa City engineer. “What we’re doing is guiding kids in sticking things in other things and seeing if they blow up or not. One of the first experiments we do is actually touching your tongue to a battery and making yourself a conductor. So we go from ‘what is electricity?’ to the third level, which by the end you’re literally building your own robot.”

The camps will be held in two empty storefronts at the Iowa City Marketplace. Meanwhile, Cheyney said he is in talks with the the city regarding the zoning for the full-fledged Fab Lab, which he said will open in a 20,000-square-foot portion of the old Von Maur space this fall, if all goes as planned. Until then, the Fab Lab will set up shop in the temporary spaces when it gets the green light.

“We’re ready to move in the first day it’s all figured out, but we’re still in the process,” said Cheyney, who has reviewed a lease with the Iowa City Marketplace but is awaiting a zoning decisions by the city to finalize it.

Jeff Davidson, Iowa City’s economic development administrator, said the city can issue a temporary use permit for the summer camps, though the permanent Fab Lab location in the Iowa City Marketplace will require an amendment from the zoning ordinance.

“We don’t think it will be a huge deal, it’s just a matter of making sure we have the ordinance set up if we’re going allow those more commercial intensive or industrial type uses that will impact the rest of the mall,” Davidson said.

Cheyney said the STEAM Room already has acquired a number of pieces of machinery, electronics and tools, and organizers have raised nearly $10,000 to date, not counting equipment donations.

The Fab Lab’s three summer camps will highlight various aspects of electronics, with a focus on putting the “fun back in fundamentals,” Cheyney said.

The Fab Lab also plans to host a science fair next month in its temporary location, as well as a summer class on how to build your own CNC machine. Organizers plan to order 3D printers, a laser cutter and other large machines within the next few weeks, Cheyney said.

Reach Josh O’Leary at 887-5415 or joleary@press-citizen.com.

The STEAM Room Fab Lab electronics summer camps

• Where: The Iowa City Marketplace (formerly Sycamore Mall).

• Who: For students age 12 to 18.

• More information: For times, dates and details, go to http://www.thesteamroom.org. To sign up, email camp@thesteamroom.org.

Cost: The cost of each camp is $300, and scholarship assistance will be available to some students in need.

Creating With Electronics I, June 9-20 or June 16-27, will teach electronics basics through building a complex alarm with lights and sounds.

Creating With Electronics II, July 7-18 or July 14-25, will teach soldering, programming and creating more complex circuits with motors and sensors.

Creating With Electronics III, July 21-Aug. 1 or July 28 to Aug. 8, builds off the knowledge of the first two camps and combines it into a programming and robotics lab.

on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen Kirk Cheyney poses in the workshop at the Children's Museum in Coralville on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen
on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen Kirk Cheyney poses in the workshop at the Children’s Museum in Coralville on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen