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The innovation gym as a science factory

by Alfonso Molina and Mirta Michilli

From low-cost science experiments to the earthquake machine: on several occasions, we have experimented with new 'specialisations' of the Gymnasium of Innovation, conceived by the Fondazione Mondo Digitale, In addition, we are educating communities with the wealth of knowledge we have gained.

Until a decade ago, associating the rigour of the scientific method with digital fabrication was almost unthinkable. Today, however, there are more and more popular events open to the public, as well as challenges and contests, involving researchers, scientists, innovators, creatives and makers in joint activities. The time when digital artisans were regarded as ‘garage geeks’, roboticists or just hobbyists seems long gone. The culture of makers and open innovation has now taken root and borne widespread fruit in different environments, contaminating even the ‘ivory towers’ of research. Several factors have played a role in this change of perspective, starting with the undoubted fascination that maker culture has for those with a democratic vision of knowledge as a common good to be shared with all. Another important contribution has been made by international events such as the Maker Faire, which have brought digital manufacturing and scientific laboratories together under the common denominator of creative innovation. But perhaps the most ‘disruptive’ and revolutionary aspect, as we say today for innovative technologies, is the one that has involved education thanks to the new digital environments created in schools or the fab labs open to the Country. A transformation that we have experienced first-hand in the Innovation Gym in Rome and in the various digital environments on the Net, increasingly inhabited by researchers and scientists, who are experimenting with a new way of ‘doing’ dissemination with their hands in digital manufacturing. A now mature model, with applications from physics to genetics, which is progressively entering curricular teaching especially through the Pathways for Transversal Skills and Vocation Training.


The Innovation Gym model

The Phyrtual Innovation Gym is a phyrtual environment, physical and virtual, for innovation and education for life, experiential learning and the practice of innovation in all its expressions: technological, social and civic. It is an open space to practice 21st century skills, from entrepreneurship to professional growth. The first Innovation Gym, located at 102 Via del Quadraro, in the capital’s Tuscolano district, was established in 2014 and is currently composed of several spaces (Game Lab, Immersive Lab, Video Lab, etc., including a fab lab built according to the MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms). Configurable, evolutionary, inclusive and bottom-up: gyms, starting from the model created in Rome by the Fondazione Mondo Digitale, can be created in every school, open to Country and citizens, to align education and training to the challenges of the 21st century. A bottom-up Gymnasia of Innovation movement thus enables schools to share their knowledge, experience and resources, involving different actors (universities, companies, associations, institutions, etc.), so that everyone has an active and proactive role in this process. Activities for schools (making, coding, robotics, etc.), afternoon workshops with tutoring for more autonomous teenagers (e.g. self-building of low-cost 3D printers), as well as training for teachers (FMD is a Ministry of Education accredited body) and original workshops for families are organised in the new spaces. Over time, the Innovation Gyms have also turned out to be extraordinary factories of science dissemination, where one learns to ‘do’ science, in the sense of makers, i.e. with their hands in digital manufacturing. Here are some experiences, very different from each other, realised over time in the digital fabrication laboratory of the Innovation Gym in Rome.


Science Illuminates

Opened to the public on the occasion of the International Year of Light (2015) by the Physics Department of the Sapienza University of Rome, ‘Science Illuminates’ is “the first and only exhibition to have been conceived entirely by makers and non-professionals”. The showcases of the ‘works’ on display and some interactive installations were made with numerically controlled machinery [].


The earthquake machine

During Seismology Week (2016), the interactive labs in schools in Rome, L’Aquila and Amatrice (epicentre of the magnitude 6.0 quake in central Italy) experimented the ‘Máquina de Terremotos’, designed by Prof. Jaime Campos of the University of Chile and made by makers at the Innovation Gym Lab. The students simulated the telluric dynamics that occur in the event of an earthquake.


Physics school with Arduino and smartphones

Various types of experiments can be performed: the motion of a heavy body on an inclined plane, measuring the charge and discharge of a capacitor, studying the propagation of heat along a rod, studying the attainment of thermal equilibrium as a function of time, experimentally verifying Ohm’s second law, studying non-inertial reference systems, etc. In four editions of the School of Physics with Arduino and Smartphone (from 2016 to 2020), physics teachers learnt how to make incredibly precise and accurate measurements with an Arduino board, a few sensors and a smartphone, without the need for expensive and complex equipment. The various editions of the School are documented on the website of the Physics Department of the Sapienza University of Rome, thanks to the work of Professor Giovanni Organtini [].


A self-built thermal cycler

With BioMaking Summer School (2018), in collaboration with the Golinelli Foundation, students were familiarised with laboratory techniques and notions of biology and genetics. It was a unique opportunity to experience innovative genetics techniques, used in the most advanced research laboratories internationally, and to build one of the tools that revolutionised genetics, the thermocycler.


A poncho grown in the fab lab

Argentinean designer and bio-materials researcher Lara Campos completed her BeGrounded project, a kit for growing plants on textiles, in the very fab lab of the Innovation Gym. The result, presented at Fashion Digital Night 2020 in the Biomaterial category, is a poncho grown inside a greenhouse installed in the fab lab. The idea brought by the young designer is that of Nature as a material to wear, with specific beneficial and curative properties for common ailments, from anxiety to stress.


Waves and black holes

What does a gravitational wave look like? Researchers from Sapienza University of Rome and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (Infn) worked together with makers to create some artefacts on waves and black holes for the “Build your own gravitational wave” exhibition, within the Researchers’ Night organised by the Science Together network at the Città dell’Altra Economia in Rome (2021).


Thanks to the Smart & Heart Rome programme, promoted with Roma Capitale, Innovation Gyms are also being set up in schools in Rome’s suburbs. And in the Tor Bella Monaca neighbourhood of Rome, the first drone flying field in an Italian school dedicated to the challenge of environmental sustainability is active. Students from the Amaldi high school, with the help of researchers from the Tor Vergata University’s Engineering Department, have learnt to programme and use swarms of drones for environmental detection. Their Aratrum Rover project participated in the RomeCup 2023 creative contests, winning second place in the Agrobot category.


We are convinced that the dissemination of science is much more effective if it is enriched by the experiential dimension, both for communicators and for the public who become participants.


School of Physics with Arduino and smartphones


The Earthquake Machine


The poncho grown in the fab lab

1 | 2023 October-December

Welcome! by Riccardo Villari
Makers and scientists by Alfonso Molina and Mirta Michilli
Green in the Lab by Anna Gunnarsson
Città della Scienza by Luigi Amodio and Alessandra Drioli
Science communication in the digital age by Dario De Notaris and Rosanna Marino
An overview by Giuseppe D’Angelo