3D printers are infiltrating schools and classrooms. Here's how they are being used.
By Brian Nadel
If you have trouble finding the shop class at Beaverton, Oregon’s Highland Park Middle School, you’re not alone. Like so many school nowadays, there is none, but Highland Park does have the 21st century equivalent. Instead of cutting, gluing and nailing wood together to make the same bird houses, students go to the library to create their own designs on-screen and then execute them in plastic with a 3-D printer.
Under the direction of Ben Lloyd, the school’s technology teacher, eighth grade students use the school’s pair of 3-D printers to make small plastic objects. The things they make range from key chains to cartoon characters, but by far the most popular items are a variety of phone cases and stands.
The Up!Mini and Robo 3D printers at Highland Park are surprisingly small, cost less than $1,000 each and fit right into the school’s STEM curriculum. The process starts with designing an object on-screen, which the software then transforms into a series of paper-thin horizontal slices that look like parts of a topographical map. These slices are used by the printer to build the object a layer at a time.
Whether it’s a key chain or phone stand, the item takes shape on a moveable stage by layering melted Polylactic Acid (PLA) extruded from a hot nozzle riding on a gantry above. As each layer is finished, the stage moves down a level and the next one is started. Like a high-tech ballet there are items moving every which way and a small plastic item sitting on the stage at the end.
“If they can visualize it, there’s a good chance the printer can make it,” explains Lloyd. The software is smart enough to make objects hollow to reduce the use of the PLA raw material, add supports for portions that might sag under their own weight and give an estimate of how long it will take.
“The 3-D printer is just the tip of the educational iceberg,” adds Lloyd. “The essence of it is that it combines software and design to allow kids to be creative as they learn a skill that will likely prove useful in the coming workplace.”
3-D printing is used everyday to make everything from jet engine parts to hearing aid ear plugs. There’s even a San Diego company that custom makes shoes based on photos that purchasers send it of their feet. By 2020, the Consumer Technology Association has forecast that 3-D printing will be a $21 billion of business and will make up for some of the disappearing 19th and 20th century industrial jobs.
“This is the future of manufacturing,” observes Ken Hawthorn, a retired mechanical engineer and mechatronics teacher at the St. Raymond Elementary School in Menlo Park, California. “But there’s a twist.” He observes that we’re on the verge of an era of personal fabrication where 3-D printers become so common that we are able to create some of the products we buy today. If you want a picture frame or need to replace a broken switch on your computer, rather than trying to buy a new one, you can print your own.
“The sooner kids get introduced to this the better,” adds Hawthorn. “Who knows, this sort of curriculum might stimulate the next great sculptor or industrial designer.”
At its simplest level, students and teachers can select from thousands of digital files online to create things like heart shaped cookie cutters or small plastic animals. Once they’re comfortable with the process, they can start to modify existing designs, like turning a small alien figure into a thumb drive cover.
The real worth is when students make a fresh start in front of a blank screen using Autodesk’s Printer Studio, Microsoft’s 3D Builder or other programs. While what they come up with might be quite complex, like the models of the Brandenburg Gate or Eiffel Tower, everything is created by combining simple geometric shapes.
Another approach is to start with a real world object, like a vase and scan it for 3-D printing with HP’s $2,599 Sprout desktop system. Pushing innovation to the next level, Sprout has a 20-inch touchscreen a small interactive projector and Intel’s RealSense camera. With its add-on $300 turntable, you can get pictures of an object from every angle that are stitched together into an editable 3-D model with the included Illuminator software. This model can be turned into a real-world object with Sprout’s Dremel Idea Builder 3D20 printer.
Any student’s smartphone can do the equivalent with Autodesk’s 123D Catch app. All you do is shoot between 20 and 40 pictures of the object from different angles with your phone and upload it to the app’s cloud servers. The program creates a printable 3-D model out of it, but all the heavy-duty processing is done in the cloud.
With the app, a student can, for example, shoot pictures of a pinecone from a bunch of angles and turn them into a 3-D model. She might want to cut it in two and hollow it out to make a box that is printed. “It’s a very powerful process,” adds Hawthorn.
PRICE IS RIGHT
St. Raymond’s Dremel 3D40 is a newer model than the 3D20 that comes with the Sprout. Rather than remain in a classroom or library, he’s mounted it on a cart so it can go anywhere at the school.
Without the computer, the 3D40 Education Edition goes for $1,300, but is a good start for 3-D schools. It not only includes all the software, tools and four spools of PLA material, but some goodies for teachers. It comes with access to an online forum for sharing designs and techniques as well as 10 lesson plans from mystemkits.com. They include instructions for making a variety of objects, including a catapult and a kit for teaching the Coriolis effect.
Dremel’s educational package also includes a four one-hour, self-paced online professional development course from the PD Learning Network. It includes 17 more lesson plans that can help first-time 3-D teachers get up to speed.
“These lessons are well defined and you know what you’re going to get,” says Hawthorn. “The real value is when kids start from scratch. The sky’s the limit.” He gives seminars for teachers on how to incorporate 3-D design and printing into the classroom and is a technological ambassador for Dremel.
Hawthorn’s eighth-grade class recently created “Buggy,” a water sensing robot with LED eyes that light up. Powered by an Arduino processor, it’s built on a chassis partially made with a Dremel 3-D printer.
“We could have made the whole thing with the 3-D printer but that could have taken overnight to print,” he explains. “If I had 10 groups of three students each doing something like this, it would have tied up the printer for weeks.” Instead, Buggy’s chassis is made from a combination of 3-D printed plastic and foam core board.
With clear plastic doors and sides, most 3-D printers allow students and teachers to see the action, although the process takes so long that it can be like watching paint dry. The simplest items take half an hour to create while large complicated objects can take several hours or overnight. The latest $2,500 MakerBot Replicator+ printer is a big step forward by increasing its speed by 30 percent compared to traditional printers.
The Replicator + has another secret up its sleeve: a video camera to keep an eye on the action. The printer can send a video stream to MakerBot’s Print app for anyone in the class to see.
On the downside, using any 3-D printer is more involved than printing on paper because when it’s finished, the printer needs to have the object scraped from its stage with a razor blade or spatula. It only takes a few minutes, but means that someone needs to periodically set up the machine between print runs. Because of this, using 3-D printing in the classroom involves some extra planning to coordinate 30 kids eager to turn their designs into reality. Still, it’s a small price to pay because with 3-D printing there’s not a trace of sawdust anywhere in the school.