Guest column: Fab Lab to train next generation

By Cedric Bleimling

One of the most productive oil fields in the U.S. over the last century has the potential to hit major pay dirt once again – with the federal government estimating that 20 billion barrels of unconventional oil resides in the Midland Basin of West Texas. The oil is in shale that only recent techniques in modern drilling have made possible to reach.

Cedric Bleimling is the Director of the Permian Basin Fab Lab.

For the Permian Basin, the discovery holds the promise of another boom for this part of Texas, where generations have found good-paying work in the energy industry. We need to make sure people are ready for these jobs and other jobs of the future. But what we’re finding is a technical and skills gap in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Data from Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. shows that 21.9 percent of Permian Basin residents age 25 or older possess an associate’s degree or higher, versus 32.7 percent for the state. Likewise, a one-quarter of residents age 25 or older possess less than a high school diploma.

This is one of the many reasons Chevron, a chief investor and employer in the Permian, along with the Fab Foundation, have opened a Fabrication Lab at Odessa College with a mobile counterpart. The mobile Fab Lab will be visiting the state capitol this week as part of SXSWedu. When back in West Texas, the laboratory-on-wheels will be available to rural schools in the Permian that otherwise would not have access to the hands-on STEM equipment.

Access to 3-D printers and other high-tech gear housed in the lab, coupled with shared knowledge from those who visit the Fab Lab, will expose students and residents in the region to a world of possibilities – whether in the oil fields or in another profession requiring STEM training.

I believe in Fab Labs so much that I quit my job as a software engineer back in my home country of France to open a lab after reading about the movement on the Internet. Continuing my journey, through networking with over 700 labs across the world, it was a conversation with Dr. Donald Wood of Odessa College in Boston in 2015 that sealed my fate and brought me to Texas.

And I have already seen so many inspirational examples of what bringing the Fab Lab and network to Odessa is making possible. For example, we have helped a doctor in the Permian Basin find a solution to one pressing problem. Dr. Tara Deaver, a podiatrist, was struggling to provide shoe inserts to children with foot deformities– many of whom are covered by Medicaid or without insurance, and unable to afford expensive inserts. Working with me at the Fab Lab, Dr. Deaver and her team designed and made a much cheaper insert using the lab’s 3-D printer.

Other Fab Lab visitors are using the equipment to continue to advance the hometown industry – refining the drill bits and pipes used to drill and produce oil.

There are endless possibilities with what people can do in a Fab Lab. We like to say, “If you can dream it, you can make it.”

My hope is that students who now have the opportunity for hands-on STEM learning will want to continue to explore STEM beyond the lab, and ultimately become the engineers and scientists of the future. We need the support of the community to make this happen. You can become a mentor or help support the students in the classrooms to ensure they are taking advantage of these resources. For more information, contact fablab@odessa.edu.

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