I don’t know anything about Fab Labs, or how exactly I would up at FAB13, the global annual conference of Fabrication Laboratories. It started with an email. The professor I am collaborating with send me an article taking about the community of makers who congregate annually. This year it would be in Santiago.

I am looking for my next step. My Fulbright project will end in November. I don’t have a clear idea of what I want to do. But I desperately want to find a way to never work for someone else again. I want to be free. And I had had a few ideas—educational tools I wanted to prototype without any idea of how I could produce them. I said yes. Why not spend a few days learning about this niche industry? Maybe making something could be my ticket out of a desk job life sentence.

So I worked out a deal with my professor. The university would cover my ticket, if I’d write about the event. Deal.

I had called my professor the Saturday before the event to confirm I had a ticket. I’d been cc’ed on a few emails explaining that I wanted to go. But I still hadn’t received any confirmation or receipt. He assured me everything was fine. I would be on a list.

When I arrived Monday morning to the Centro De Extension Pontificia Universidad Catolica, my name wasn’t on a list. I called my professor. There was about an hour of scrambling. He finally sent me a bank transfer receipt, which still wasn’t the ticket confirmation I was supposed to have, but I got in.

The main conference room was filled with fab lab machines, 3D printers, printers, laser cutters, wood burners. For anyone who is as confused I was, a Fab Lab is a small scale prototyping workshop. People pay to use the space, much like they would pay to use a co-working space. They have access to all the expensive machinery needed to make things. Most offer classes as well. In the past, prototyping was only feasible for large companies with huge R&D budgets. Fab Labs have allowed muggles like you and me to bring their product ideas to life.

The conference began with a series of introductions in the auditorium. What are the goals of this conference? Where will the conference be held next year? Things like that. In the afternoon, the presenters introduced the concepts of working groups. During the conference, working groups meet and organize around a certain theme. I’m not exactly sure what these working groups will do, but I think today (Tuesday) we’ll find out more. I am interested in the Education for Educators working group. How can we teach design-thinking in the classroom? How can we teach students to make things?

The conference also offers a number of workshops in Fab Labs around Santiago. For example, you can make a custom backpack with heat transfer graphics! I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds cool.

During the morning intros, the conference organizers also introduced their SCOPES project—Scaling a Community of Practice for Education in STEM through Digital Fabrication (SCOPES-DF). In brief, this initiative aims to bring digital fabrication into the classroom. The SCOPES folks are building a platform that collects digital fabrication lesson plans and activities.

The conference people showed an example lesson plan where students laser cut lanterns. I was initially stoked on this! I want my students to make cool things! But I talked with a Danish women who pointed out a problem. The lessons the SCOPES people were highlighting were instructables. The students follow a series of steps to build something that was conceptualized by the instructor. Students would learn more if they could come up with the own ideas, and have the support of teachers who help them bring their own ideas to fruition.

Another notable problem. Yes, it would be sick to have students laser cut their own lanterns. But who the hell has a laser cutter? I love the idea, but I work within the public school system. All of this seems a little inaccessible.

It’s Tuesday morning. I still have a lot to learn about Fab Labs. Today, I want to go to a workshop where we build furniture out of laser cut wood! But I also want to go to the educators working group. I still have no idea what these working groups do. I’m not sure how I’ll prioritize but I will report back!