Think­ing the box

NZ Lifestyle Block - - The Good Life - Source: labin­

When some­one cre­ates a clever space and then that clever space is put to a clever use, it’s got to be worth writ­ing about. This par­tic­u­lar space started life as a ship­ping con­tainer and goes by the name of Lab in a Box, or LIAB for short.

We first came across it via Jen­nie’s En­vi­roschools con­nec­tion. She heard about it and thought it sounded in­ter­est­ing and very soon I was be­ing asked to help get her worm-farm stuff to the LIAB for a cou­ple of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ses­sions be­ing run at Dunedin’s Botan­i­cal Gar­dens. The pho­tos from that day (see page 54) show that it clearly worked as in­tended, a clas­sic ex­am­ple of clever space put to clever use.

Peter Dear­den is the orig­i­na­tor of the idea. The As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor at the Otago Uni­ver­sity Bio­chem­istry Depart­ment also wears one or two other hats. Ge­net­ics is his thing, par­tic­u­larly ge­net­ics to do with bees.

His ini­tial rea­son­ing was that ge­neti­cists are con­sid­ered ‘evil’ and he thought a bit of good pub­lic re­la­tions wouldn’t go amiss. I have no prob­lem with his as­ser­tion that ge­net­ics has changed our lives and our agri­cul­ture. His other com­ment – that ge­net­ics is fun­da­men­tal to our health and our fu­ture – is another de­bate for another day. My rea­son­ing is a can of petrol and a box of matches are both use­ful items but in the hands of some­one with be­havioural is­sues – the hu­man race, in this in­stance – they can pro­duce se­verely negative out­comes.

The other rea­son for cre­at­ing a mo­bile lab­o­ra­tory is that it needs only one of ev­ery­thing, rather than each school or com­mu­nity buy­ing equip­ment which would then spend 90% of its time gath­er­ing dust. You can think of the LIAB as you would a mo­bile den­tal clinic, al­ways on the move and busy all the time. One bonus is that it can be left with­out a driver in at­ten­dance, or in fact with­out any­one at all.

Peter Dear­den talks en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about the looks on small faces in far-flung schools when they first see the likes of an ant un­der a mi­cro­scope. He also points out that most sci­ence is hands-on and that the cur­ricu­lum can be dif­fi­cult for a non-spe­cial­ist teacher.

Ru­ral schools and com­mu­ni­ties are also where the rub­ber hits the road in terms of land use and wa­ter qual­ity. These are the peo­ple who own – or will own – the re­source so who bet­ter to teach the sci­ence to?

Tom­a­hawk La­goon, on the out­skirts of Dunedin, is a good ex­am­ple. Its phos­phate lev­els were sky-high, lead­ing to the ques­tion of who/what is re­spon­si­ble? Wa­ter qual­ity will in­creas­ingly be­come the ‘big­gie’ if the push to in­ten­sify con­tin­ues and the LIAB an­tic­i­pates this by in­clud­ing ph, dis­solved oxy­gen and salin­ity me­ters in its ex­ten­sive list of equip­ment.

De­signer Nick Slee­man was ini­tially en­gaged via the Poly­tech to pro­duce a CAD de­sign to ac­com­pany fund­ing ap­pli­ca­tions. Start­ing with the idea of us­ing a ship­ping con­tainer, his ob­vi­ous prob­lem was how to get a lot of bod­ies – 18 seated peo­ple was the de­sign tar­get – into a teach­ing space. It is an age-old prob­lem pre­sented by road-le­gal widths as 2.5m is too thin for a hab­it­able room. That’s why we see all kinds of pop-outs and hinge-outs on house trucks, mo­bile homes and car­a­vans. The LIAB uses the time-hon­oured side pop-out method to essen­tially dou­ble the floor-space while mak­ing it squarer; a ship­ping con­tainer is 6m long and the pop-out makes the LIAB 4.8m wide. Nick says that not all the space is avail­able, as given that the unit will spend time in places away from a power sup­ply, there is a key-start gen­er­a­tor on board, and other equip­ment too.

He says he wanted the work­ings to be in­vis­i­ble, or as near to it as prac­ti­ca­ble, so most of the open­ing mech­a­nism is squeezed into the 200mm at the top of the con­tainer. But that led to a small prob­lem.

“As soon as you cut into a con­tainer it is no longer straight and square and true.”

This – along with the need to keep

glass stress-free – ne­ces­si­tated a lev­el­ling process which unini­ti­ated folk could fol­low when open­ing-out the unit.

Pop-outs cre­ate three prob­lems. The first two are weather-proof­ing them in the ‘in’ and the ‘out’ modes. Typ­i­cally there is an in­ner flange, an outer flange, and some kind of rub­ber gas­ket. It may not seem prob­lem­atic, but mov­ing it at 100kph on a rainy day can sure show up the most ob­scure of cap­il­lar­ies.

The third is­sue is what hap­pens if there is no lo­cal power and the gen­er­a­tor fails? The ‘pop-out’ would be stuck in place so a man­ual pack-up sys­tem had to be sorted. There are good lessons here for any­one con­tem­plat­ing an ex­pand­ing space, but even­tu­ally these curve-balls were ironed out (to well and truly mix metaphors).

The day I watched it in ac­tion, the LIAB eas­ily ac­com­mo­dated an au­di­ence of nearly 20 adults, one teacher, one fa­cil­i­ta­tor and an un­known num­ber of worms, all but the lat­ter in sun­lit com­fort.

Fund­ing is al­ways the stum­bling block for such a pro­ject. The LIAB was ini­tially funded by the Min­istry for Busi­ness and En­ter­prise (MBE) via some­thing called ‘A Na­tion of Cu­ri­ous Minds’ (www. cu­ri­ous­ In light of what I’ve writ­ten these last few years, it would be fair to say I think they’re on the right track. Other sup­port came from Ro­tary, Otago Uni­ver­sity, and there was a huge prac­ti­cal com­mit­ment from Icon Lo­gis­tics who have been fan­tas­tic says Peter Dear­den.

A long-term fun­der/spon­sor is still be­ing sought. Peter thinks there is room in New Zealand for two or three of the units and it would be a fan­tas­tic pub­lic-re­la­tions ex­er­cise for some­body.

As is al­ways the case, it is much eas­ier to ob­tain ini­tial fund­ing than main­te­nance fund­ing, and it’s not hard to see why. A new idea/pro­ject/item can be shown-off, with

po­lit­i­cal mileage to be gained, as ev­ery­one likes a new ini­tia­tive. But main­tain­ing an ex­ist­ing pro­ject? Where’s the ku­dos in that?

In New Zealand, we get these things started, then they get moth­balled and it makes no sense. If the need has been recog­nised enough to seed them, so too should be the ex­pec­ta­tion of con­tin­ued use, and there­fore con­tin­ued fund­ing.

The LIAB be­came ready-for-use last Oc­to­ber. It did a ‘guinea pig’ stint at Kings High School, then hit the road around the bot­tom of the South Is­land. In that time 5000 peo­ple went through it, a mix­ture of schools and pu­bic show­ings. It ar­rived back in Fe­bru­ary to get some in­evitable bugs ironed out and it’s now rar­ing to go again. The next stint is a full South Is­land cir­cuit plus Ste­wart Is­land and the Chathams.

Even if the LIAB sub­se­quently can’t find on­go­ing fund­ing, it’s still a worth­while at­tribute parked up some­where, but it’s far more suited to be­ing on the road. We’re go­ing to need ev­ery lit­tle sci­en­tist we can get.

It’s a cool con­cept, both in terms of the build and of the use to which it is put. Watch for it or get your lo­cal school to sched­ule a visit. It ticks a lot of boxes, and per­haps that comes with be­ing one.

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