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Art, Science and Technology Meet in UTRGV’s Newly Founded “Fab Lab”

UTRGV students Vilma Flores and Alissa Flores with Dr. Emmett Tomai, associate professor of Computer Science, are working on the start-up of the UTRGV Fabrication Lab, to be located in the Visual Arts Building in Edinburg. The ‘fab lab’ will create a new space for people to design products using technology, science and art. Not pictured is Donna Sweigart, associate professor of art, who is collaborating with Tomai on the project. Photo: Paul Chouy/UTRGV

Albert Einstein: “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

by J. Edward Moreno      

EDINBURG, TEXAS — Two faculty members at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are teaming up to create a new place for people to design products using technology, science and art.

Donna Sweigart, associate professor of art, in partnership with Dr. Emmett Tomai, associate professor of computer science, are establishing a fabrication laboratory, commonly referred to as a “fab lab,” at UTRGV’s Art Annex in Edinburg.

Sweigart and Tomai in January received an Internal Seed Research Program grant from UTRGV’s Office of Research, Innovation, & Economic Development to start the endeavor.

The Fab Foundation website says “activities in fab labs range from technological empowerment to peer-to-peer project-based technical training to local problem-solving to small-scale high-tech business incubation to grass-roots research.”

The goal of the UTRGV initiative is to make technology available for creative and entrepreneurial purposes in underprivileged areas.

For the future facility to be recognized as an official fab lab, it must be reviewed by the Fab Foundation, and if approved, will be the first fab lab in South Texas.

The nascent UTRGV fab lab will be available for community use and is focused on encouraging youth, particularly young girls, to explore fields in creative technology.

Alissa Flores, 20, a computer engineering student who is helping start the fab lab, has participated in other programs to promote STEM among young girls. She said she is excited to continue that once the center is open.

“I get a kick out of seeing the girls enjoy coding,” Flores said. “When they enjoy it, that’s how we know we’re doing something right.”

Sweigart, who specializes in metals, jewelry and computerized design, has co-taught a game design course with Tomai for the past four years. She said collaboration between two departments is imperative.

“It’s a way to encourage collaboration between what we usually think are disparate disciplines,” she said. “The modern inventor is more than one thing – more than a computer scientist or engineer, or even an artist.”

Vilma Flores, 24, a studio art and sociology student who is helping start the fab lab, said this program has given her the opportunity to explore a different side of her field.

“My brother did electrical engineering, which is what got me interested in the ‘techy’ side of art, and now I have the resources to explore that,” she said. “It’s going to be awesome to see girls become interested in this at such a young age because, personally, I did not experience that.”

Tomai said the fab lab could also mean big things for the future of Valley industries.

“This is really relevant for the Valley in particular because we need more tech out here,” Tomai said. “We really want to advance computing technology industry here in our area.”

The immediate purpose of the facility will be to give students and the community the resources explore their potential and discover new things.

“We’re excited to see people come in and make great stuff,” Tomai said. “That’s what we want out of this – a place where people can come and they realize what they can do. Then they do it and blow the rest of us away.”

The fab lab pilot will launch Aug. 17 with a group of Girl Scouts, who will be the first in the community to try out the facility.

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