Inside the Maker Movement: A Q&A with Blair Blackwell, Chevron

Photo by Chevron.

GBC-Education member Chevron is committing $10 million to the Fab Foundation, an extension of MIT Center for Bits & Atoms, to open new Fab Labs in areas across the U.S. in locations where Chevron operates.

B Blackwell_headshot cropped

Blair Blackwell, Manager of Chevron’s Education and Corporate Programs

According to Blair Blackwell, Manager of Chevron’s Education and Corporate Programs, the Fab Labs have already served between 1,000 and 1,500 students and community members, empowering them to become self-taught designers with the help of digital fabrication machines such as 3D printers and laser cutters. Now, with the addition of the new Fab Labs within schools, universities, and science centers, community members will have access to a hands-on, solutions-driven science and technology learning experience.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs are the fastest-growing jobs in the world today. However, there is a massive pool of job vacancies in part due to the disconnect between available and needed skills. Increasing the number of children and youth with relevant technical and vocational skills for the jobs available is a major goal of the new Sustainable Development Goals that will be adopted by the U.N. at this September’s U.N. General Assembly. The new education-related goals build off of the Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3 and will drive global development forward for the next 15 years, focusing on the quality of education such as increasing access to skills directly linked to employment.

Chevron’s Fab Labs which support the Maker Movement — a global movement encouraging independent inventors and designers both outside and within STEM fields — exemplify how companies can use their core assets to educate their local communities. The learnings from Chevron’s investment are applicable globally as part of this sweeping movement focusing on skills development. Following their participation in the International Fab Lab conference (FAB11) in early August and in the lead up to the launch of a new Fab Lab at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh tomorrow, GBC-Education caught up with Blackwell to talk about how companies can better leverage their own core assets and internal expertise to positively impact skills development and support the movement.

Q. Why Fab Labs?

A. Chevron’s investment in the Fab Foundation is a part of a $30 million commitment we made in 2013 to education in the United States. We announced our commitment to the Fab Foundation in 2014 at the White House Maker Faire. Through Fab Labs, students have the opportunity to practice and get hands-on with the engineering design process.

Q. That’s interesting! So what actually happens within these Fab Labs?

A. Our partnership with the Fab Foundation puts the tools to make almost anything into the hands of students so they have the opportunity to practice the engineering design process. A student can take what they’ve learned in the classroom and go to a Fab Lab where they can design and create themselves. In doing so, they gain experience with almost every element of STEM and make those connections to the real world.

Q. Good point. It’s important that students are making that connection.

A. We’ve all found that the opportunities that take critical skills learned in the classroom and connect them to real life examples and careers are absolutely vital. In the Fab Lab students also have opportunities to collaborate and to develop those critical skills — beyond just the technical skills — that will ultimately make them successful in their career.

Q. Chevron’s going to be opening more Fab Labs this fall. So, from your company’s perspective, what’s the biggest lesson learned as you’ve scaled up your program?

A. The importance of getting the right people and finding the right partners to work together. For us, this is very much a joint initiative between Chevron, the Fab Foundation, the host community, the host organization, and then the greater K-12 education community around that. Rather than us just installing a bunch of equipment and saying ‘Right, you have your Fab Lab — now launch,’ we’ve held community workshops before the build and encouraged feedback on how the programs could be used, who needs to be engaged, and what some of the opportunities for sustainability might be.

Q. Could you talk a bit more about your internal process in identifying the right people and the right partners?

A. Taking that time to really understand what the needs of the community are, [and] what the resources that the community can really bring together I think really helps inform how companies should approach an investment. There are a couple of partners that deserve calling out in this overarching partnership. One would be the Fab Foundation. They already had a very strong track record of establishing the Fab Lab network and the connections coming out of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms where they were founded. They also have the capacity to think about how to ensure that this isn’t just fun but that it’s fun and really brings rigor to ensure that students understand the STEM courses they’ll need to utilize the lab.

The Fab Foundation also works with our local business units in our communities to help identify the right staffing to ensure that the Fab Labs are going to be open in the right ways to the community.

Q. Creating sustainable investments is so important. How will you go about building Fab Labs that will endure?

A. Each Fab Lab is an investment of three years, so three years out, we want these Fab Labs to continue to thrive within the community. Each investment includes support for the equipment for those three years and the necessary training that goes with the equipment. We also include ongoing training to ensure connections between the Fab Lab and K-12 education. We’re always looking for additional additional partners to help with funding or management of the labs.

Q. Thanks for these insights into how you choose partners. Do you have any advice for companies looking to enter this space?

A. My thoughts are that STEM is so big that once you get in you can get pulled into a lot of directions. So really be strategic about those investments; chose an area of STEM that really has meaning to your company and where you feel like you’re able to add the most value to support those programs.

Q. How will you define success in your partnership and where would you like to see it go in the future?

A. First, we would like exposure to a large number of students but also a very in-depth engagement by students in the Fab Lab. Secondly, we want the lessons learned, the materials from the network, and the best practices being shared and implemented between both the Chevron-supported Fab Labs with the greater Fab Lab community. This will also help with number three: We want to make sure that these are long term, viable Fab Labs. And then lastly, we would like to see the growth in the Maker Movement. We would really like to see more businesses provide support to these kinds of initiatives. And I would call out that that’s not only large companies like Chevron who can get involved, but also engaging some of the smaller local companies and communities. There’s a lot that they can do to support the Maker Movement and the Fabrication Movement wherever they may be.