AMRoC Fab Lab in Uptown Tampa fuses creativity with STEM

Once upon a time, people travelled to University Mall near USF to actually go shopping. Though it has long-since changed hands and renovations for RITHM at Uptown are slowly developing, there’s a little-known gem here worth scouting: the Advanced Manufacturing & Robotics Center (AMRoC) Fabrication Lab, which resides where the previous Champs store used to be.
Though the nonprofit organization Foundation for Community Driven Innovation (FCDI) has been around since 2015, AMRoC Fab Lab, their new home base, has only been at the Uptown Tampa location for about two years. The goal is to make an accessible, affordable learning lab for anyone of any age to try out new technologies, focusing their energy and resources in one community to have a measurable impact. One of their staple programs is their robotics education for kids.
“There’s a lot of art here, from the walls to the projects. A robot has to be attractive and have an aesthetic value to it,” explains Terri Willingham, Co-Founder and Program Director of AMRoC Fab Lab and Executive Director of FCDI. “The kids also have to learn how to control wiring and make the whole robot attractive. Part of what they do is drafting design using CAD on the computer, to design the robot and parts, some of which can be 3D printed at the Fab Lab. From CAD to wiring and even creating a website and marketing materials, they’re exercising applied learning in context rather than just as theory taught in a classroom.’’
There’s also an art to the creativity in imagining new ways to implement technology, with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) as examples. In short, AR is like reality with extra emphasis, where you can look through a headset and see your surroundings and periphery with digital additions, and VR is an all-surrounding virtual world seen through a headset. Just recently, AMRoC  partnered with license holder Green Mouse Academy in West Palm Beach, to showcase and help develop programming around HADO, an augmented reality e-sport similar to dodgeball. HADO, which can currently be played only at AMRoC Fab Lab, has potential as a fun fitness program for youth and adults.
“This program is fascinating, and we’re experimenting with ways to introduce people to it and make it more accessible. What’s great is you don’t have to be super physically active to play; you can even be in a wheelchair to play HADO,” Willingham says. 
As part of their innovation challenges, kids on one of the robotics teams have been creating tech-based solutions to improving health. Working together, these students developed a gamified VR biofeedback program to help stroke victims. Their project attaches electrodes to muscle sensors on the patient so when they move their arm, it causes a VR reaction like making a flower bloom or something blow up. As the patient gains more movement in their limb, they must do more to make the action happen.
“Over the summer, their goal is to finish it and have a working prototype. Gamification makes health progress easier because patients have a visual goal. The first way we learn is through play, and this extends that concept,” Willingham says.
Besides tangible health benefits from creative uses of tech, there are therapeutic ones as well, like with drones. Tampa Drones, led by Josh Newby, has partnered with and operates out of AMRoC. While the concept of the drone program was to focus on kids’ education, it has impactful therapeutic benefits for veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
“We started Tampa Drone meetups in 2014 and were surprised to see the majority of people who attended were retired. It’s so new and there’s nothing like it out there,” says Newby. “Tech is crossing over with one another. With First Person View (FPV) headsets, you can be sitting in the point-of-view of the drone’s camera and have this out-of-body experience. You’re no longer sitting in this wheelchair because you’re so immersed.”
Immersion is a big aspect of both art and craft, where the maker is absorbed in the action of using their hands and minds to bring something to life while making it look pleasing to the eye. With the craftsmanship involved in tech and robotics—making your wiring nice and clean, and your soldering perfect—perhaps this can provide another creative outlet for those who don’t see themselves as “creative.” 
‘”Having the skills to be able to make things gives you agency and makes you self-reliant. We want kids and adults to not be intimidated by technology, or even worse—indifferent to it. Where else can the public just walk in and have a personal experience with technology like this? It’s a blank slate in here. We just want people to come in, love what they do, and pass it on to others,” Willingham says.
To find out more, visit the AMRoC website or AMRoC on Facebook.
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Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”