Friday, August 02, 2013

A question about 3D printers in education

I was recently asked a question about my 3D printer:


This ended up being very thought provoking on multiple levels and as with all thoughts I have like this I thought I’d share them here.

Through serendipity about a year and a half ago I found I had unspent grant money that needed to be spent. As I’d made a few big rounds of purchasing for my classroom lately I felt I pretty well supplied. So I decided to take my largess and spend it on a Makerbot Replicator. I entered into this technology purchase in the worst possible way. Here was a big tech purchase and I really had no specific educational outcomes in mind and yet with a tool with the promise of this one I feel no regrets on that score.

So, back to the question. What resources do I wish I’d had? I wasn’t quite sure what Matt meant and I’ve decided to not ask for clarification on this question, but to answer it a few different ways. A few of these wishes have since been met, I’ll point out the resources where appropriate. I’ll also add in the resources I’m glad I had.

What resources do I wish I had before I purchased my 3D printer? 
I wished I had a good breakdown of all the entry level 3D Printers available on the market created by a third party (that is to say, not marketing material for any one printer). Personally I spent a lot of time on the internet searching before finally settling on Makerbot. Now, of course, there is the Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing and they’re now working on an update to this guide. I’d add that I’d like to see one of these done by educators to see what they’d predict they’d see in a school environment with the different machines. This team should include some dedicated industrial ed teachers as well as core content teachers who might use 3D printed objects in their curricula.

Another thing I would like to see is some sort of article or set of articles that could be used to justify the expense of such a machine in the classroom. These could be used to help sway a school’s administration into investing in such a device. Inspired by the question I will try to create such an article in a future post.

Now, once I had my printer what resources do I wish I had?
First on this list would be easy to use software to run my 3D printer. For those not familiar with 3D printers, you need a piece of software that will take the 3D model file to create the tool paths for the machine to follow. This one has been solved for the Makerbot with Makerware. I’m not sure if Makerware will work with other 3D printers or not. Makerware offers very easy default options, but also gives the more advanced user more control. These advanced features are mostly hidden from novice users which really is a good idea. With the advent of Makerware my Makerbot became much easier to use and more versitile.

Next on this list would be an easy to use CAD program. I teach physics and electronics with micro-controllers. Neither of which have much time built in that could be used to teach CAD (even Sketchup). This problem has also been solved for me in a couple of ways. The first of these is a service called TinkerCad. TinkerCad runs in the cloud and requires no software install (always a bonus in schools). It allows you to easily create 3D models and export them as *.stl files ready for printing. Note, there are actually lots of options now. TinkerCad is my favorite though.

Another option that occurred to me last year was OpenSCAD. OpenSCAD allows you to create 3D models programatically. This is not something I plan to teach to my physics students, however. The power here is that like any program you have variables. So you can create or find a good model and then let students explore how changing variables can change the underlying model. My students were able to investigate how changing the parameters of a wind turbine affected the output voltage while possessing no 3D modeling skills. We created and tested 20 different designs. The designs were all created in only two class periods, one each for my two sections.

I would also have liked more nuts and bolts advice and knowledge on operating my printer and the problems I might encounter. To some degree it really is impossible to put together a resource that covers all the potential pitfalls, but I had to fumble around quite a bit. The biggest issue I had to overcome was the warping of parts. This happens for particularly large parts as they cool. The can pull away from the build platform and distort the part or even come loose ruining the print run. The “Helper Discs” that appeared in the example menu in Makerware have helped me immensely with this problem. While there is some overlap, the needs of a Maker are often much different than the needs of a teacher.

The final thing I wished I had when I got my 3D printer was a good idea of how to leverage the power of this device to enhance my teaching. I know it’s a bit ironic, this is exactly what I said I didn’t have and didn’t really care about when I started this post. What I’m still looking for are really cool design projects I can use with my students to tie together what we’re learning with real world applications and critical thinking. To some degree this has been solved a bit with the Makerbot Curriculum page, but I’m still not satisfied here. Now that I've discovered the power of OpenSCAD, a whole range of potential projects has become available as well.

Bottom Line?
Some of the things I wished I had are now available but a few are still lacking and might never really exist:

  • Breakdown of best 3D printer in an educational environment. Ideally created by educators (and their students)
  • Articles to be used to support an educator in the purchase of a 3D printer.
  • Cool design project ideas to be used in conjunction with core content classes.
  • Nuts and Bolts guide for teachers on how to use and trouble shoot problems.

2 comments:

Kern Kelley said...

This is very helpful Steve, we have a 2Bot we used with students last year with great success and we looking at plastic model printers now. Thanks!

Steve Dickie said...

You're welcome. If you end up having any questions as you move forward please do not hesitate to ask.