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Response: With 3D Printers, 'You're Only Limited By Your Imagination!'

This week's question is:

What Is A 3D Printer and Should Our School Get One? How Do They Fit Into The Maker Movement?


I've previously published a two-part series on the growing Maker Movement:

The Maker Movement Can Give Students 'A Story To Tell'

Tanya Baker from The National Writing Project discusses implications The Maker Movement has for different content areas, National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau elaborates further on its connect to STEM, and Leslie Texas and Tammy Jones make a connection to Project-Based Learning.

The Maker Movement Believes In 'Kid Power'

Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary S. Stager graciously adapted a portion of their book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Education in the Classroom, into a piece for this blog.


There has also been growing interest in exploring how to use 3D Printing as a "Maker" tool.  The question, though, is how is it tending to be used?  Teacher Frank Noschese sent out a recent tweet with a caution: "Don't let 3D printing projects become the dioramas of the 21st century."

Today, several educators share their experiences in working to avoid that pitfall.  Laura Blankenship, David Malpica, David Thornburg, and Terry Graff have contributed commentaries. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation Laura and I had on this topic during my BAM! Radio Show. 

Response From Laura Blankenship

Laura Blankenship is the Chair of Computer Science at The Baldwin School, an all-girls' pre-K-12 independent school in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she teaches 8-12 grade Computer Science. She is also serves on the Computer Science Teachers' association board of directors. Along with Andrew Carle, she runs the #makered Twitter chat on Tuesday nights at 9 PM:

When I started telling my colleagues I had a 3D printer, they often did a double-take.  Wait? What? Is that possible?  And then I explain it, and then they see it and then they get it.  A 3D printer prints a three-dimensional object layer by layer, usually in plastic, but fancy ones can print in metal and even chocolate.   

I use my 3D printer in both middle and high school, where students have created phone cases, jewelry boxes, key chains, gears, and just cute figurines.  My elementary school colleague has had students print boats, jewelry, gears, and boxes.  Students use special software to create a 3D image for the printer, which is now ubiquitous and even online. The process of creating the image is often a challenging one for them as creating in 3D doesn't always come naturally.  Using the software builds spatial skills that students often don't experience, even in math class.

They also learn about scale and accurate measurements, especially when creating interconnected parts.  I've combined 3D printing with Computer Science to create objects to house Arudino projects such as one student's drink temperature tester.  She created a mug with a hidden compartment to hold the electronics that tested the temperature of the liquid in the mug so that you knew when to drink it.  Creating something like that takes creativity and math skills.  The best part is that students have something to show for all those calculations!  

3D printing can also be used to create molds or stamps for art, gears for engineering projects, or models of bones and molecules.  Designs are available online through sites like Thingiverse and even the Smithsonian and NASA provide models for printers. Better yet, students can create their own using Tinkercad or Autodesk's suite of online 3D modeling tools.  You're only limited by your imagination.

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Response From David Malpica

David Malpica is Director of [email protected], a [email protected] embedded at Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, California:

At Bullis Charter School, we've had a long trajectory of Project Based Learning (PBL) and Design Thinking integration in the classroom. When I was tasked to set up our FabLab (fabrication lab), I could feel the vibrant excitement around 3D printing among the school communities. I am convinced that putting 3D printers (along with with a well trained or even dedicated staff person) in school curriculum is Preparation for Future Learning (PFL). PFL is a low stakes learning and assessment model that plants seedling experiences for students to understand, own and even perhaps master later in life. Let me share one example of the role of 3D printing at BCS:

The field of medical engineering is poised to benefit greatly from 3D printing. Already, we hear about lives being saved and changed through 3D printed marvels such as 3D printed arms, hands, exoskeletons, and more. Not too long ago, a one person decided to make a mold to make chocolate castings shaped like his brain. Borrowing from "chocolate brain", we planned a unit for fifth graders on 3D visualization of the human body and analysis of 3D printed prosthetic hands. Students and teachers first attempted to process MRIs into 3D models using the same open source software used for "chocolate brain". Meanwhile, our 3D printer worked long and hard to print several sets of robohands. We used these for a design analysis exercise. Students learned to build the hands, take precise measurements using calipers, think about user scenarios, make design recommendations, and how to use 3D software to prototype and solve problems. The student's creativity ran wild!! I believe these students have had an incredible experience that has laid a foundation for interest in science, medicine, design or engineering.

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Response From David Thornburg

Dr. David Thornburg has worked in the field of educational technology for over 30 years.  His current focus is on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education with an emphasis on inquiry-driven project-based learning.  His recent book on 3D printing in the classroom is the first book on this topic designed specifically for educators.  In addition to writing, Dr. Thornburg presentas are educational technology conferences worldwide each year.  His recent activities can always be found at his blog:

3D printing is suddenly capturing the attention of the world. Every day we see news stories about how large machines allow the construction of houses in a day, how medicine is taking advantage of this technology, and even how parts in airplanes are being made with these tools. In short, the face of modern manufacturing is changing. But while this is all very interesting, it isn't clear to everyone why 3D printers belong in schools.

While some educators are wildly excited about bringing 3D printers into the classroom, there are plenty of teachers who don't see what the fuss is all about. Let's be honest, with everything on teacher's plates today, adding one more gadget to the mix can be hard to understand.

I think the best approach is to start with the curriculum, since that is the key thing on most teacher's minds. With the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Mathematics and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) up for adoption, I think the curricular connections can be quite strong. For example, the NGSS has declared that engineering is now a K-12 subject! From my perspective, the pathway to engineering is best approached through the kind of tinkering associated with the design and fabrication of objects on a 3D printer. But the connection doesn't stop there. 3D printers connect to topics in physics and math with ease, and even have application in the fine arts! When we wrote our book on the topic, we made sure that each of our projects had connections to both the NGSS and CCSS math.

One nice feature of this field is that professional-grade design software is available for free (we explore some of this in our book).

Our popular teacher workshops on the topic quickly engage educators in the process of designing things to address a specific goal. Rather than limit ourselves to drawings, the actual parts designed by teachers are fabricated out of plastic while they watch!

From a pedagogical perspective, 3D printing moves beyond Piaget's constructivism to Papert's concept of "constructionsm" where students learn by creating artifacts they can share with others. Whether it is the design of gears for a robotics project, or the creation of logical game pieces, you will soon find that your printer is working overtime to meet all the demand you and your students are putting on it.

Of course, budget is another issue. On this front there is very good news. While excellent printers can be purchased for $2,000 or less, the recently announced daVinci 1.0 printer retails for only $500 - and the print quality is very good. Of course, as with all technologies, we expect the performance to improve over time as the prices continue to fall.

Should you be investing in this technology today? I think the answer is yes!

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Response From Terry Graff

Terry Graff is an NBCT with eighteen years of experience with the Albemarle County Schools:

The Maker Movement caught my attention a couple of years ago as an exciting endeavor for my students of varied academic and socioeconomic backgrounds to create, collaborate and think critically. My students apply learning by using simple materials provided for them - anything from legos, or cardboard, to technology for coding. My new role as a learner alongside my students is exciting, and our Maker Space is a work in progress because there is always something new to add, and something new to create.

Last fall, I was fortunate to receive a local Shannon Grant, and a 3D Makerbot (recently named R2D2 by my students) became the newest addition to our classroom. We have printed out 3D models that concurred with our units of study. For our American Indian Unit we printed out tipis, and longhouses. For our ancient history studies we will print out pyramids, pagodas, and the Great Wall. The students created a JOY ornament to celebrate a new holiday. The 3D printer has given students another way to see "making" their creations/ideas come to fruition. Providing students with relevant 21st century STEM education, like the integration of makerbot projects throughout a school year, creates an active and engaged community of learners.  Beyond the application of science and engineering principles, this technology provides an interdisciplinary connection between math, social studies, and language arts.

Enterprising teachers in my school district have answered questions (often through twitter), shared information, and provided high school student interns to help in the classroom. This is how I learned about a student friendly platform, www.tinkercad.com, to create objects for the 3D printer. My students love creating on tinkercad!

Notably, our superintendent and administration is supportive of teachers collaborating and bringing new ideas into the classrooms for our students.

Last of all, the importance of integrating this technology as quoted by President Obama in the 2013 State of the Union address: it "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."

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Thanks to Laura, David, David and Terry for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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