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Making Stuff: 3D Printing on Campus


MakerBot's Cupcake at the University of Portland

Debbie Schenberger and George Meadows work as faculty members across the country from each other, Schenberger in Portland, OR and Meadows in Fredericksburg, VA. Their disciplines are quite different. Schenberger is an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Portland; Meadows is an associate professor in curriculum and instruction, teaching pre-service science teachers, at the University of Mary Washington. But they have something in common: They're both enamored of their MakerBot Industries 3D printers for what the devices can do in helping educate students.

How a 3D Printer Works

MakerBot is a Brooklyn-based company that was started in 2009 by a team of three, one a former art teacher, who had the goal of creating an open source 3D printer that was so affordable and easy, it could be used by practically anybody with technical skills proficient enough to assemble it. The first two models, the Cupcake and the Thing-O-Matic, were sold as build-it-yourself kits. (More proficient users could just download the plans from MakerBot and concoct their own printers.) The latest model, named the Replicator, is priced at $1,749, and comes already built. There's currently an eight-week lead time on orders.

The MakerBot box creates small objects of almost any design out of a "string" of plastic that gets fed into an extruder. That composition can be one of three kinds: ABS, which is what Legos are made of; PLA, a corn-based biodegradable material; and water-soluble PVA. Based on the design programmed into the machine from a computer or via an SD card, the printer heats up the filament fed into it and oozes out a single layer at a time onto a small dancing platform, following the 3D design, layer upon layer, until the object is created.

The Maker Culture

Encouraged to enter by a friend, Schenberger won her Cupcake in a competition specifically for educators. It arrived in spring 2011, she recalls, "as a huge crate of parts. That was a little disheartening. I thought it came assembled, so I was surprised." She set a student to putting it together and began making some preliminary parts on it.

Meadows, on the other hand, is immersed in the "maker" culture, which emphasizes do-it-yourself or DIY projects. While he doesn't recall where he first heard of the MakerBot, he was enchanted by the idea of having a desktop-sized machine that would allow the user to design and build objects as they were needed -- even if he needed to build it himself. He shared his thinking with his dean, who agreed to fund the "relatively inexpensive" purchase of a Thing-O-Matic, which arrived last fall. Meadows spent "several Saturdays" putting it together. "If I were better at soldering and I knew more about electronic components, it would have been faster," he declares.

He hauled the printer to campus and shared it with his colleague Tim Owens, an instructional technology specialist at U Mary Washington's Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. After playing around with it, he says, they decided, "We gotta get another one.'" The second one, he notes, "went together much faster." Owens was inspired enough to start a blog about 3D printing to share university experiences.

The first print-out they did were calibration cubes, which, like setting the resolution on 2D printers, allows the user to tweak printer settings. Then they began downloading digital design plans from Thingiverse, a MakerBot website where people share plans and tool ideas and collaborate on ideas. For example, company co-founder Bre Pettis appeared on a June 2011 episode of The Colbert Report, where host Stephen Colbert had his face scanned by a 3D scanner and a model of his head composed by the printer. That plan went into the Thingiverse repository, where other users tweaked it and turned the original design into plans for a Colbert-inspired chocolate mold, mug, cookie cutter, cufflinks, and dinosaur head (the "ColberT-rex").

In the case of U Mary Washington, the first plan allowed Meadows and Owens to make an octopus. Says Meadows, "It's like catalog shopping. You go to Thingiverse and pick the thing you want. But instead of ordering it and waiting for it to arrive by mail, you print it."

Since then, they've been using Google SketchUp, a free service that's "easy to learn," Meadows says, to do 3D modeling.

But it's not the ability to replicate the inventory of a dollar store that has Meadows so intrigued. He's more interested in the impact the MakerBot printer could have in elementary science education.

He'll be teaching a course in the fall, "Elementary Science Methods," to pre-service teachers. As part of that he'll be introducing them to the inclusion of engineering in their science lessons. As a result of the National Research Council developing a national framework for K-12 science standards, he says, "One of the things that's happening in science education is that there's a big emphasis on including engineering in science classes."

3D printing fits well, Meadows explains, in a scenario where the student is "designing something, testing it, learning, recording information, going back and redesigning. It's really a great way to do problem solving."

Children are "helped," he adds, "by something they can get their hands on. It helps them visualize something." So, for example, he's considering one lesson building activity for his pre-service students, in which they design a boat that would be good for skimming oil off a water surface, like a polluted lake or stream. "They can design that in Google SketchUp and print it out, and we can test it."

Is it realistic to think that K-12 schools would be able to afford a MakerBot printer so that the lesson and others like it could be replicated by those new teachers in their classrooms? "I think that is not too far in the future," Meadows predicts. "The fully assembled Replicator is under $2,000, and that's with two-color capability. It's a good chunk of money, but a lot of schools have been able to get grants or PTA support to buy interactive whiteboards, which are pretty close to that [in price]."

Engineering Body Parts

At U Portland, Schenberger and a couple of mechanical engineering student assistants have been tweaking the printer to optimize it for performance. "You can control everything -- the temperature of the melt, the temperature of the platform that it builds upon, the feed rate in all the three directions, the thickness of the layers, how much density you have for the core material on the inside," she says. "We could leave it the way it was. It produced parts the very first time we turned it on. But we can make it better. And since we're a bunch of engineers, we're going to."

For the last three years Schenberger has been revitalizing a course in automated manufacturing. As part of that effort, she's been acquiring machines such as endmills and a 3D laser scanner. The use of the Cupcake printer is "one more piece in my puzzle," she says.

"It's invaluable for the students to be exposed to these modern manufacturing processes," she adds. "You can scan in complex surface geometry, convert that to a CAD model, print it on a 3D printer, then you can go and machine it out of steel when you're satisfied with what you want it to be."

This semester a pilot of that class has been testing out the equipment to enable her to run a lab-based course with a larger group in the fall.

One of her plans is to use the Cupcake to make components for a robot that a student robotics team will be using to compete in the annual NASA-sponsored "Lunabotics Mining Competition."

Another plan is to apply the Cupcake to creating plastic body parts as part of Schenberger's research into spinal fusion. "We plan to make individual vertebrae on the [printer] and connect it with a foam rubber-type material. Then I actually perform 'surgery' on these plastic spines to put in the pedicle screws and spinal rods and simulate fusion with bone cement," she says. "I don't really care what the spine is made out of. I just need something that is the right shape and is strong enough to hold the screws."

The Cupcake, she says, "looks like a toy, but it actually produces really nice parts. I'm quite impressed."

Getting Back to Building Things

A number of other faculty members both at U Portland and U Mary Washington are also impressed.

Says Schenberger, a couple of professors in organic chemistry at her institution are "just fascinated" with the MakerBot printer. They want to use it to create molecules and organic compounds to show students what they look like. "So I plan to work with them to make some cool models."

Meadows' fellow faculty members have also come up with their own applications for the university's Thing-O-Matics. A person who does math education wants to have his pre-service students create math manipulatives, "physical objects that help children learn math concepts that are a little bit abstract," he explains. People involved in historic preservation are interested in scanning in and printing artifacts and coins, as copies of objects they may not want to pass around to a class. A professor in the art department who teaches sculpture plans to obtain her own MakerBot device.

The fascination instructors have with the MakerBot recalls an era when humans did more for themselves, muses Meadows. "Like we used to do with our cars. You'd go in and take things apart and fix things. With computerization it's difficult to do that. Now we're getting back to the idea of making something, building something, testing it, fiddling around with it, and rebuilding it. It goes back to that hands-on DIY ethic."

As that unfolds in multiple ways on campus, he adds, "I'm really hoping to see a Replicator here soon."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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