STEM education and some more on 3D printing as general purpose tech

3D printing and its related technology is general purpose technology that can train kids for the future. I saw an example of that yesterday when I was able to visit La Jolla Country Day School where sixth to eighth grade kids on spring break were learning basic 3D Modeling and Design. Last week they worked on How to Make Musical Electronics. In the 3D modeling program, Ann Worth, an MIT School of Architecture graduate, guided the youngsters as they manipulated files of their heads so that at the end of the program they could print them. I also watched a video of two girls who had been shown how to make an amplifier and oscillator for their iPhones. Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, UCSD was their instructor. The kids talked about trial and error, vectors and faces, and circuit boards with energy and joy. How often does that happen? If Katie Rast and her co-visionaries at FabLab San Diego have their way, much more often.

Despite some nerds are cool ideas, we still hear that kids are turned off by math and science and that there is a lack of good Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education. New programs may change all that. By taking an old idea like shop and updating it, a FabLab (short for Fabrication Lab) offers the chance to make learning about programing, engineering, geometry, and the jot of creation. Kids are willing to engage with formulas; start, fail, and restart projects; and work rather hard at their projects, because there is fun and an outcome for them. The spring break program I visited is called Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math, or STEAM. The University of California, San Diego and FabLab SD worked together to offer the classes (which to me is a tech transfer moment that is quite important).

In the 3D modeling program, the kids started with a series of photos, which were uploaded to 123D (a suite of 3D modeling apps by Autodesk). That service knits the images together into a file that the kids then download. In many cases there are holes in the images. As they made models of their heads, they laughed at the holes in their heads. They then used a program called Blender to learn about filling the gaps. That meant some kids were telling me about vectors, others about textures, and all showed off as they pulled, stretched, and edited files to create the proper rendering of their heads. After that, they grabbed files for the bodies. A range of animal bodies will be virtually sliced up to make the new creature upon which the heads will attach. When asked what they might do next, these folks talked about how metals, glass, and other materials would be awesome so they could make really functional items. Some talked about being able to have a home printer that could make solar cells to power other printers. When told that these ideas were already being pursued, eyes popped out of their heads, and then grins covered their faces at thoughts of what’s next (and I think a little pride at predicting where the technology could go).

The skills learned in these programs will persist even as the machines and software are superseded. Who knows? If I had access to this sort of tech training combined with math and science education, I might have stuck with that path. Even if I didn’t, I’d have a greater ability to play with and understand the technology that surrounds us. In short, congratulations to La Jolla Country Day School, UCSD, FabLab SD, Ann Worth, Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, and Katie Rast for pursuing ways to make STEM fun and for kids. The ideas here remind me of Julie Cohen’s work about play and its importance in her book, Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice. As Rast said on a panel at SxSW, computer labs were often seen as saviors for education especially in low income areas, but they often gathered dust. The key is to have maker spaces that work for the group’s context. A lab need not have the latest technology. If the technology is connected to people in meaningful ways, then the magic can happen. I agree. The magic of playing with technology, understanding what you can do with it, and seeing new possibilities will fire the desire to learn and create. As Neil Gershenfeld (a leader in the Maker and Fab movement) put it, this is a liberal, as in liberating, art. But don’t take my word for it. As one kid told me at lunch, adults’ brains are not as good at learning as kids’ brains, and kids like showing what they can do. Now that is education.

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