Fabrik: A Makerspace at the Montreal Science Center

Fabrik: A Makerspace at the Montreal Science Center

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I was in Montreal a few weeks ago with a friend.  We’re the type of people who would go to a positively reviewed science museum anyway, but when I saw that the Montreal Science Center (Centre des Sciences Montreal) is currently doing a makerspace exhibit, this museum got bumped to the top of my vacation to-do list.  Here’s the promotional video that lured me in:

Basically, the museum has dedicated a large chunk of space to workbenches clustered around six challenges.  Each challenge has a supply of recycled materials available, as well as tools ranging from scissors and tape up to handsaws (although I didn’t actually see anyone sawing anything while I was there).  Here are the challenges:

  1. “The clothesline” – Put together a contraption that can travel down two parallel, gently sloping wires, without falling off before the end.
  2. “The pond” – Build a boat that can travel across a water table while carrying a 25-gram weight.
  3. “The balcony” – Create something that will keep a fragile object from breaking when you drop it from increasing heights.
  4. “The shack” – Mess around with LEDs, lenses, motors, switches, etc.
  5. “The garden shed” – Create a Rube Goldberg machine.
  6. “The alley” – Create a device to carry 25 grams overland, powered by the wind.

The whole museum was well designed, and full of very excited kids who were having way too much fun to let a couple of grownups anywhere near most of the exhibits.  Fabrik, though, was exceptional even for this museum.  You had to wait in line just to get into the exhibit, and a lot of people did it at the end of their visit to the museum–but I didn’t see a single unengaged child (or adult, for that matter) in the place.

My friend and I waited our turn to get in, scoped out the challenges, and decided to start at “the pond.”  This station had a water table, some workspaces, and a couple of carts full of recycled materials.  The resources available included pieces of plastic pennants, drinking straws, plastic food cartons, chunks of foam, small snippets of bungee cord, and pieces of corrugated plastic, among other things.  There were also tape, scissors, glue, and so on–as well as a set of weights of different heaviness.  All of the resources had been used before; one of the rules of Fabrik is that when you’re done with the challenge, you must take apart your creation and put all the supplies you used back into the supply carts.

The fact that our supplies had all been used before added an interesting dynamic to the process of creating a boat.  On the one hand, you could look at a plastic tub, notice the holes in the bottom of it, and learn that someone before you had tried to attach a mast through a hole in the bottom, presumably so they could blow their boat across the water table with a sail.  That sort of thing made it easier to come up with ideas you might not have thought up on your own.  On the other hand, it meant that a lot of the plastic tubs had holes in the bottom of them, and were prone to sinking as soon as you put them in the water with a weight in them.  You had to either patch the holes or else come up with a different way to keep your boat afloat.

Getting space at one of the worktables was a constant challenge at Fabrik, since everyone was moving around, gathering supplies and testing their boats (or other inventions).  It was pretty chaotic, but a lot of fun.  After a couple of attempts my friend and I managed to assemble a boat that could carry a weight across the water table without either sinking or tipping over.  You can see my friend blowing it across the water table in the picture at the top of this post.

After we put away the pieces of our boat, we moved on to “the clothesline.”  A lot of the same supplies showed up here that we’d already seen at the pond, but there were some differences.  One notable change was that instead of plastic tubs, we now had access to wooden circles with holes in their center, like you find in Tinkertoys.

I was amazed at how such a seemingly simple challenge–roll something down two parallel wires–was actually pretty challenging, and involved a wide range of skills.  I also really love the clothesline challenge for how easy it would be to set up just about anywhere.  Water tables like “the pond” might be hard for some libraries or other makerspaces to get their hands on, but who can’t tie or tack up two parallel wires with a slight slant?  All the materials the young makers were working with were recycled or could be acquired cheaply, and the activity was challenging enough to engage adults, but not so challenging that it put off children.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay long enough to try my hand at Fabrik’s other challenges, but I highly recommend checking this out if you’re passing through Montreal.  Even if you aren’t heading for Montreal anytime soon, check out their website; some of these challenges are great maker activities that would be relatively simple to set up at your own library, museum, classroom, or makerspace.

Have any of you been to a museum exhibit like this?  What did you make?  Drop us a comment or tweet @makerbridge and let us know!

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