David Warlick Ryann Warlick Martin Warlick
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Why 3D Printing & Fabrication are Important to Education

(cc) Photo by Anja C. Wagner
3D printer selbstgebaut vom ODC (self-made at the open design center, probably in Berlin)

I mentioned in my ISTE Reflection article that I thought 2012 would be the year that 3D printing and fab labs emerged as a major interest to the education world. But it’s more than just a cool technology that we’d like to see in schools.  Personal fabrication may be hugely important to us.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with my friend, neighbor and fellow blogger, Paul Gilster (Centauri Dreams).  A self-made authority on interstellar space exploration and associate with the Tau Zero Foundation, Gilster has inspired me for years, as expressed in the acknowledgments of all my books.

On that day, he told me about work toward sending small spacecraft to specific positions in space in relation to the sun.  The craft would look back at our star and utilize the bending of light caused by the sun’s gravitational force to magnify what’s on the other side.  The concept is called Gravitational Lensing, and was initially mentioned by physicist Orest Chwolson in 1924 and first quantified by Albert Einstein in 1936. In effect, we would be turning the sun into a gigantic lens, through which we would be able to see, according to Gilster, planets orbiting distant stars, continents on those worlds, and even cities, if they exist.

This is where my legs started to get wobbly.

Getting to specifics, Paul explained that to get a spacecraft to that position, about 750 astronomical units (AU) from the sun (Pluto orbits at an average of 40au), the craft would have to be very small and utilize nano scale mechanisms and even some degree of artificial intelligence.

At that point, a recurring question came to mind, which I asked,

“Assume that we’re approaching the limits of what we would practically want to do with our cell phones and personal computers, and that they’re about as small as we wish them to be, what’s going to drive further research and development in miniaturization – making things smaller?  Surely not NASA.”

I didn’t actually speak the last sentence.  But Gilster said that aside from the military, it would be personal fabrication, that we would all have our own in-house fabricators, where we would design and “print” our own cellphones, etc.  

As my son explained it to me, the lid that holds the batteries in our TV remote is broken and has been discarded.  As a result, we have to handle the remote with care to prevent the batteries from falling out.  Tape has not been a satisfactory solution.  With a 3D printer, we would simply go to the Samsung web site, look up the part and print it.  Ten minutes later (or an hour later, it doesn’t matter) the part would be sitting in our printer, where we could clip it into our remote.  One of the 3D printers that I saw at ISTE cost only $1,600.  The original Macintosh computers were nearly twice that expensive with only 128K of memory and no hard drive.  3D printers may become very important to us.

The true potential is when we can design our own remotes, with our our own sense of flair, using design software, and then print in our own homes.  Cottage industries might emerge, contests, DIY markets – and all fueled by creativity and inventiveness.

Check out the proliferation of Maker Faires and Cory Doctorow’s 2009 novel, Makers.

Now this idea of in-house fabrication and its cultural impact may seem a bit far-fetched to you.  However, if you’re old enough, you may remember a time when carrying your personal phone in your pocket might have seemed just as unlikely – a phone with which you could get weather and news reports on demand, have access to an interconnected global library, pinpoint your exact location on a map and participate in any of a million global conversations.

My question is this.  What should our children be learning today and how should they be learning it, to be ready to leverage this kind of creative opportunity?

What do you think?


  • http://www.schooltutoring.com/ Evan Singer

    I’m a mechanical engineering student currently and while we have access to a rapid prototype machine, it requires too much resources and time to create small parts you need in a hurry. The more suitable intermediate step would be a 3D printer. Indeed, this technology needs more widespread attention as you mentioned its potential effectiveness in the home.

  • http://www.instructiontech.org Linda Ray

    I am a middle school technology teacher in central Texas. Last year I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in the summer at STEM training. We had a 3-D printer and were able to create a peg toy. It was amazing. Technology education should be headed in this direction. Unfortunately, it takes time for curriculum to catch up to the latest and greatest technology tools.

    3D printers, as you pointed out, have become affordable. The computer programming needed to create our own personal products is also available, free to schools that have STEM classes. If we could get ahead of the slow wheels of progress in education, we could begin training the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, today.

    I had never considered the personal uses of 3D printing that you pointed out in your blog. However, if this same tool was in the hands of my students, they would have recognized the value immediately. It is our job as educators to familiarize students with tools like 3D printing, even if we do not have the capability of actually using it in the classroom. From experience I have learned that when students are introduced to exciting information, they will run with it and learn much on their own. So, until the educational system can operate as quickly as technology, I guess information is the next best tool we can give our students.

  • http://noeltigers.com William Chamberlain

    I seriously considered buying a 3d printer for my classroom. I even asked my principal if she would be willing to purchase one for the school. (I told her we could save money by making awards to give away instead of buying them ;) I don’t think it will happen this year, but maybe soon.

    I don’t know what my students might be able to design using a 3d printer, but that really is the what makes it so interesting to me.

    BTW have you seen the articles on 3d printers making human organs? That is an amazing application for them.

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  • Matt Montagne

    There is no doubt that the democratization of the tools of production will do the same thing to mass manufacturing that blogs/wikis/etc did to mass media. These tools are already creating opportunities that feed the long-tail of manufacturing (just see etsy). However, we’re still in the early phases of this revolution-some even say we are in the altair days of 3D printing. This is probably true, as it takes 60 minutes to print out even very small parts on 3D printers in the ~$10,000 price range. While I am excited about this stuff, we are still a long way away from seeing this equipment proliferate in schools. In the meanwhile there is tons of prototyping and design to be had with blue tape, glue guns, wire and scissors.

  • Dan Lacanienta

    Let’s talk about the other major component of the 3D printer…the INK! One will need a bunch of ink cartridges that contains the raw material for the specific item one will be printing…plastics…carbon fiber…aluminum…and a horde of alloys and or polymers and various combinations…a lot of schools have difficulty supplying their chemistry lab with some of the more common materials let alone above mentioned materials.

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Books Written

Cultivating Your Personal Learning Network
2nd Edition (2012)

Redefining Literacy 2.0 (2008)
Classroom Blogging
(2007) • Lulu
• Amazon
Raw Materials for the Mind

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