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'Fab labs' deliver high-tech tools

MIT's fabrication laboratories aim to help developing communities find innovative solutions to local needs.

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Six months ago, when he first walked into this small building tucked off a dirt road in one of Pretoria's impoverished townships, Kenneth Chauke had never used a computer. He didn't know how to maneuver a mouse, or how to type his name.

But now, the 17-year-old has all the trappings of a techie. He peers at a flat screen monitor, sitting a few feet away from a laser cutter, bins of circuitry equipment by his elbow. He has built his own robot – a cardboard construction that looks part truck, part animal – and is trying to figure out how to develop sensors, gears, and lights.

Soon, Kenneth says, he will go on to new inventions. Maybe a spaceship. Maybe a device that will stop car crashes before they happen. "I want to create new circuit boards, to do things that aren't being done," he says.

Standing nearby, Nthabiseng Nkadimeng smiles. As the IT supervisor at this "Fab Lab," or fabrication laboratory, she has been encouraging Kenneth and other students who flock here after school to think expansively about their new world of technology. That, after all, is the goal of the Fab Lab, an idea born at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now spreading across the developing world. "We want to encourage innovation," Ms. Nkadimeng says. "A lot of the kids, right now, they're making toys. That's OK, it's a start. But eventually we want them to do things that haven't been done before."

Fab Labs are different than the myriad other nonprofit programs working to introduce technology to disadvantaged communities. The MIT professors who came up with the Fab Lab concept believed that rural villagers in India, sheep herders in Norway, and impoverished teens in this Pretoria township of Shoshanguve – anyone anywhere, really – could learn to create technology, as well as use it.

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