Category: Education


In the last few years, we’ve visited flagship Maker Faires in San Mateo, California and New York City where we got to hang out with over 100,000 kindred spirits for whom tinkering is a critical component of life.  While formal Maker Faires are a fairly recent phenomenon, the educational application of “making” dates back to the dawn of the previous century when John Dewey said that what a child knew was not as important as what he did with what he knew.  This perspective from the Father of Progressive Education remained central to the thinking of educational leaders like MIT Professor Seymour Papert who, in the early 1990’s, coined the word “constructionism” to describe the process of building representations of knowledge separate from the learner himself. (Papert, Seymour, and Harel, Idit. “Situating constructionism.” Constructionism 36 (1991): 1-11.)

Even libraries have joined the movement with public “makerspaces” being added to facilities previously dedicated to quiet, paper-based, research.  As Erica Compton from the Idaho Commission for Libraries has said, “Libraries need to become more like kitchens and less like grocery stores ― a place where patrons are able to construct knowledge, where they can create, build, make and be actively engaged.”

One would think that a recent surge in constructionist activities has taken the world by storm, perhaps at the expense of reflective thought or of activities of value, even if they don’t result in artifacts.  Well, as far as traditional schooling goes, the progressivist philosophy of Dewey has yet to become the norm.  To be fair, every school has students engaged in making things.  Whether it is a science fair project displayed on a tri-fold board, or more complex constructions, every teacher engages students in some sort of project that requires “making.”   But it is the rare school that embraces the “making” philosophy across the curriculum.

As a product of a progressive public high school in Chicago, my life was pretty equally split between hand-based and head-based learning.  And, it was the work we did with our hands that made what we learned with our heads “stick” and make sense.  As a result, my first year in Engineering at Northwestern University was basically a walk in the park.

While any subject at any grade can benefit from a rich “making” component, the STEM fields are clearly low hanging fruit in this regard.  There are two reasons for this:  First, the scientific method is based on the testing of conjectures through experimentation and our curricular interest in technology and “coding” (programming) feeds into “making” as well.  Second, the Next Generation Science Standards and (to a lesser extent) the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics mandate the use of inquiry and project-based learning as the vehicles through which these subjects are navigated.

And, yet, in too many schools the ground in which these forces are planted lies fallow.  The time has come to change this, and the tools needed are inexpensive and easy to get.  We’ll describe some of these tools, but first there is another topic to explore: the physical structure of school.  According to the architect Prakash Nair, too many schools are built around “bells and cells.”  Children move from place to place at fixed intervals and (especially in the upper grades) sit in rooms at desks all facing the front so they can harvest the wisdom imparted from their teacher.  It is a rare school that allows the free flow of students from place to place and lets them work on projects as long as they need to.

While the incorporation of makerspaces in traditional schools is possible, there is a long way to go if the goal is deep pedagogical change.  In some cases, schools have a STEM lab where groups of kids work on a variety of projects with the freedom to move from place to place as needed.  Except for the burden of bells, such environments can be quite productive ― functioning more like studios than classrooms.  For many, this is a great first step, but it carries the risk that it will be isolated in fear that the practices there would infect other rooms.  As Professor Papert asked on numerous occasions, “What would be the impact of the pencil on education if you had to go to the pencil lab to use one?”

On the classroom computer front, it might appear ― at first glance ― that recent trends are moving us further away from supporting a culture of making.  The reason I say this is because Chromebooks are now the number-one computing platform in America’s schools.  Since Chromebooks rely on cloud-based applications, traditional software is no longer supported, leaving users at the mercy of those developers willing and eager to create applications that can be run over the Internet.  Also, it was not clear at the start how Chromebooks would accommodate maker hardware like 3D printers, and robotics control devices like the popular Arduino board.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.28.56 PMIt turns out these fears are unfounded.  In the domain of student programming, for example, everything from MIT’s Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) to Terrapin Logo has (or will soon have) versions that work splendidly on Chromebooks  This helps move the Chromebook from a content delivery platform to one that supports unbridled student creativity.

With the current interest in students learning to program (coding) these developments are welcome.  In some ways this harkens back to the early days of personal computing when there was little commercial software, and students had to learn to write programs themselves.  Of course, the programming world has changed a lot since the early 1980’s with construction block languages like Scratch coexisting with text-based programming languages like Logo and Python.

Of course, with programming languages, the results reside on the computer screen.  With peripherals like the Arduino, computer programs can interact with remote sensors and output devices like lhyperduinoamps and motors.  Using tools like HyperDuino for Chrome (www.hyperduino.com) students can build projects that bridge the virtual and physical worlds.

A popular starting point for HyperDuino is the making of interactive tri-fold displays where, by touching certain areas of the display, the computer might play a video and lights on the physical display turn on to show the area being explored at that time..

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 7.47.09 PMMore elaborate constructions can be made using the Fab@School Maker Studio software (www.fablevisionlearning.com) that cuts out elaborate paper shapes designed by students using the Silhouette computer controlled paper cutter.

Even 3D printers have joined the cloud, making them work perfectly with Chromebooks as powerful tools for making.  Two companies with excellent cloud-based printers are Polar3D (www.polar3d.com), and New Matter (newmatter.com).

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.51.38 PMWhile cloud-based design tools for 3D printing have been around for awhile (e.g., Tinkercad), new and more powerful tools have arrived, such as BlocksCAD (blockscad.einsteinsworkshop.com).  This tool uses Scratch-like programming to design 3D shapes of amazing richness and complexity.

My point is that the maker movement in education is supported on many levels ― from the new standards to the new technologies and beyond.  It is time for heads and hands to be unified in support of learning across all grades and subjects.

Meet the author

Dr. Thornburg and his colleagues conduct workshops on maker technologies ranging from 3D printing to using the HyperDuino technology with Chrome.  He can be reached at david@tcse-k12.org.

There has been a recent push toward a more progressive approach to education that is likely to have a positive impact at all grades and across all subject areas. This move is based on Seymour Papert’s ideas of “constructionism” in which learning is demonstrated by the creation of artifacts that are separate from the learner herself. As Papert has said, it doesn’t matter if the expression is a poem or a sand castle – the fact that it exists outside the learner where it can be shared with others is the critical part. John Dewey famously said, “I don’t care what a child knows; I care what he can do with what he knows.”

This shift from knowing to doing is reflected in the Next Generation Science Standards where the focus is not on learning about science, but learning how to think and act like a scientist. The same approach applies to other subjects – from mathematics to the arts – and the benefit of this approach is that it engages students and increases their learning.

One of the strategies that supports this shift is inquiry-driven project-based learning in which students start with a compelling question that drives the creation of projects to provide an answer to the question. For example, suppose a class is exploring the seasons. In early grades, questions might deal with why certain holidays are held during particular seasons. In later grades, a question might be whether or not seasons exist on other planets. If you want to bring the arts into the topic, there are rich areas of exploration from the music of Vivaldi (The Four Seasons) to Monet’s seasonal paintings of haystacks. In fact, a good starting point for this module would be to use a mind mapping tool like Freemind Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 3.13.51 PM(http://freemind.sourceforge.net/) for students to use as they brainstorm a list of interesting questions. In short order, a list of 50-100 questions might get posed by a classroom full of students, any one of which could be an interesting project for a student. By having students work on individual questions and then sharing their work with the rest of the class, everyone benefits from the combined efforts and the depth of learning increases as a result.

What tool is best for creating projects? To me, the answer is Hyperstudio (http://www.mackiev.com/hyperstudio/). This product has amazing capabilities as a multimedia authoring tool. Basically, the user creates a stack of “cards” on the screen, each of which can have buttons, graphics, sounds, movies, narrations, text, etc. Once a project is completed it can be shared with others who can navigate through the stack to explore the project. In the case of a linear sequence of cards, a stack even can be converted to a movie for posting on YouTube. Because Hyperstudio works with both Macs and Windows, a student can start a project on one kind of computer and finish it on another. The versatility of this software is amazing.1 card sample

In fact, if it only did what I described, it would meet most people’s needs. However, as they say on late night television: “But wait, there’s more.” In addition to everything else, Hyperstudio has the built-in capability to interact with the Arduino interface card (https://www.arduino.cc/). This card connects to your computer through the USB port and allows you to read a wide variety of sensors (light, temperature, pressure, etc.) and control external devices (lights, motors, etc.) The result is that the virtual world of the computer is now extended to the physical realm, adding even more capabilities to student projects.

The Arduino is not without its challenges, however. First, the native programming language is a tricky to learn, especially for younger users. Second, the physical connection to sensors and lights requires additional components (resistors, etc.) that complicate the creation of a finished project.

Both of these challenges are nicely addressed with Hyperstudio. First, the programming tools for the Arduino are built into Hyperstudio using easy-to-understand commands that students at most grades easily can learn. Second, the need for external resistors, etc., is eliminated through the use of a plug-in card (called a shield) that greatly simplifies the process of making connections. This card is called the Hyperduino, (http:www.hyperduino.com).hyperduino

It plugs into the Arduino card and provides all the resistors an other components needed to supplement the lights, motors and sensors so the student can focus on the project itself, not the mechanics of connecting components. As Roger Wagner (designer of both Hyperstudio and the Hyperduino) has said: “The HyperDuino does for the maker movement what HyperStudio did for hypermedia: it makes it possible for everyone, regardless of age and experience, to create interactive maker projects.

The result is that student projects can have both a virtual and a physical component in which, in addition to a rich piece of multimedia on the computer screen, a physical model can be constructed with touch switches and LED lights that turn on or off to show aspects of the physical model that are related to what is being shown on the computer screen. The result raises the constructionist bar, and makes student projects even more compelling to those who experiment with them.

For example, if a student builds a physical model of something related to a season, the act of touching a switch can light up the model and have the computer go to a card related to the season and start playing a movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The point here is that everything is created by the students.

Because Hyperstudio stacks can launch each other, the teacher can create a master stack with buttons that link to each student’s project. This becomes a really neat thing to display during open houses so parents can see (and explore) the work of their own children as well as the work of others in the class. The greatest benefit, though, comes from students sharing their work with each other. This sharing is likely to trigger new questions that can result in even more work on the topic – all without the direct intervention of the teacher.

The result is a huge leap away from the traditional text-book driven model of education with the bulk of the work being moved into the hands of the students themselves. In fact, with a project like this, it is possible that teachers may learn something they didn’t know before. The excitement that comes from new learning makes everyone eager to learn more.

As mentioned before, the constructionist approach described here cuts across grade levels and subject areas. One would he hard-pressed to find a curricular area for which it doesn’t apply.

As for us, we are busy doing workshops with teachers that explore both the pedagogical underpinnings of this approach, as well as the mechanics of working with Hyperstudio and Hyperduino. Because we want the workshop to have an immediate impact on classrooms, every participant receives both the Hyperduino kit (including the Arduino board) as well as a full licensed copy of Hyperstudio. To schedule a workhop at your school, e-mail us using the form below.

Like many of my generation, life changed a bit when Sputnik was launched in October, 1957. While many of my classmates were interested in rocketry, my own interest was more in the field of electronics – the instruments needed to make measurements of temperature, pressure, and other data that was then sent back to Earth by radio. Because I was an amateur radio operator at the time (K9SRW) who built all my own equipment, this was a natural extension of then-current interests. I remember walking part way home from high school just so I could stop at a local Army surplus store packed with boxes of resistors, capacitors, and other components including the transistors needed to build amplifiers, oscillators, and other circuits one might need.

Since, as I said, rocketry was not my goal, I looked for any way to get a project off the earth, even if it didn’t go into orbit. As a result, in 1961, the method I chose (helium-filled weather balloons) was not only inexpensive, it could be used to carry a pretty heavy payload (two kg or so). With my focus on the electronics, I built the transmitter, and the attachments needed to measure altitude, temperature, air pressure, luminosity, and to send the legally required Identification signal. All of these circuits were modular, and a lot of time was spent making sure everything worked. My father provided a photographic plate to see if I could detect cosmic rays (assuming I would get the plate back from the experiment so it could be developed.)

The finished payload was a cube about 30 cm on a side, and I built two of them – one in Styrofoam for launch, and one in clear plastic for testing and display for a science fair at my high school. I called the experiment Project HiBall (for high balloon, of course) and on launch day I just hoped everything worked.

Fortunately, the experiment was a success. The balloon headed west, and landed a day later on a farm in Iowa where a kind farmer found it and sent it to me. The data was not earth-shattering, but the experiments mostly worked as planned and the resulting science fair project was well-received, taking me to the State finals. While my interest in STEM subjects had already been formed, there is little question that this project strengthened these interests, setting the trajectory for my continued education.

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The reason I shared this experience with you is because, today, even more amazing options are available. The first technology to mention is the CubeSat- small (10 cm/side, about 1 kg)) satellites for student projects that stay in low-earth orbits for about a year (www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cubesats/). While most of the projects are done by college students, there is a special opportunity to expand this access to high school students. This project (ArduSat – http://www.ardusat.com) is based on the popular Arduino board used to send and receive data from all kinds of sensors and actuators. While most Arduino projects reside here on Earth, the Ardusat system lets students design and test experiments in their classroom that can then be sent to an Arduino-based CubeSat for testing in space. From my historical perspective, this is staggering!ardusat

The Arduino board connects to a computer and has numerous inputs and outputs for both digital and analog data. The Ardusat student kit includes some special sensors for luminosity, temperature, an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, UV sensor, infrared thermopile and other data sources. The whole kit is only $150 which is a bargain considering the specialized sensors it contains. While experiments can be designed and tested here on Earth, finished Arduino programs can be sent 450 km up to the Ardusat where experiments can be done and the data sent to Earth.

This goes way beyond what I was doing in 1961 in two very important ways. First, the experiments are done on an orbiting satellite. Second, the projects can be done by students without them having to design all the sensors and other equipment themselves. This has the effect of democratizing the endeavor, bringing an amazing opportunity for STEM education to students everywhere.

In addition to the hardware kits, Ardusat also has a lot of activities and experiments that can be downloaded and explored – including tutorials on the hardware itself. This material is generally released under a Creative Commons copyright, making it perfect for free classroom use.

In addition to the tutorials and other resources, the activities are keyed to both the Next Generation Science and the Common Core Standards. This adds value in that teachers can see how Ardusat projects tie into the standards they are expected to support without having to wade through the massive standards documents themselves.

There is no question in my mind that the project I did ages ago helped guide me into the sciences. What excites me more is that projects like Ardusat will achieve this result for thousands of kids who well then go on to invent our future.

On September 19-20 Norma and I attended the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science. This extravaganza had so much to offer that two days were barely enough to scratch the surface. The Faire itself had everything from exhibits of new tools for makers to hands’-on areas where you could learn to solder, or build thngs of your own.

Kinderlab

Kinderlab

One of the many new products being demonstrated was the Kinderlab robotics system where kids can assemble computer

programs with wooden blocks whose bar codes were then scanned by a robotic platform that would then follow the instructions in the program. This project was one of several Kickstarter projects on display.

Based on our interests, we looked very closely at the 3D printing systems, along with some of the new CNC machines that cut elaborate shapes from blocks of wood, wax, plastic, or aluminum. On the 3D printer front, the M3D printer was

M3D Printer

M3D Printer

receiving a lot of attention. This under-$400 printer doesn’t have a very large print volume, but has some super features, including a special circuit that maintains alignment of the print head automatically. Many other 3D printers were on display but one of the ones getting a lot of attention was the new system being sold by Dremel. This is one of the first 3D printers with a well-known name behind it, and this device will be sold in places like Home Depot. When 3D rinters first started showing up for the hobby market, they required a lot of adjustment to keep them working well. In the following years, features (like self-leveling build plates) started to become more common. The fact that well-known brands are entering the market shows that this technolog is becoming mainstream. This doesn’t mean that smaller companies will go away, just that they will be held to high standards.

Dremel 3D Printer

Dremel 3D Printer

Of course, in this short posting, we can’t do justice to the Maker Faire. For example, two Italian exhibitors were showing

Chocolate iPhone Case

Chocolate iPhone Case

interesting devices, including a 3D printer using chocolate (in case you get hungry and want to eat your iPhone case). Another system from FABtotum in Milan combines a 3D printer, computer controlled milling machine, and high resolution scanner into one elegant box. Products like these help set the stage for the next Maker Faire!

MIT’s Mitch Resnick has said that Maker Faires are great staff development for educators. Our experience shows he is right.

Last week we conducted a workshop for educators on 3D printing in the Indianapolis public library.  They have a space that was perfect for working with twenty educators.  Several 3D printers were provided by 3D Parts Mfg., and Norma and I were the workshop leaders.

Indianapolis workshop

Indianapolis workshop

We started with a big challenge that put the participants in the deep end of the pool. (I’m not sharing the task since some of you may be in one of our upcoming workshops and I don’t want you to get a head-start!)  The point is that the participants saw cross-curricular connections to this activity.  This is important because teachers, in general, want to see how any new thing connects to the curriculum they are responible for.  One of the nice characteristics of 3D printing is that virtually any activity cuts across all the STEM subjects, and many can even be connected to other subject areas – including fine arts, history, and others. From our perspective, the critical element was having the participants see themselves as designers.  Toward that end, we made sure they had access to several 3D design tools rather than just focusing on a single tool like Tinkercad, for example.  The fact is that some kinds of designs are easier in some tools than in others, and the more choices teachers and students have, the more likely they will be to create incredible designs. Some teachers felt that recipes for projects were appropriate, and they did projects from our book The Invent to Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom, since these projects are already in recipe form. We had plenty of assistance from Kim Brand and his colleagues at 3D Parts Mfg.  They provided the printers we used, and handled all the logistics so all Norma and I had to do was show up with our handput packages for everyone. Since that workshop we have been contacted to conduct more workshops around the country.  The 3D printing revolution is ready for prime time!

Our upcoming workshop explores many things, including how to extrude two-dimensional graphics created with TurtleArt into three-dimensional shapes that can bed for many things – including pressing patterns into clay for decorative tiles.  The original idea for this project came from a great blog by Josh Burker (http://goo.gl/cjuBrH).

The following Animoto video shows a project done (with some help from us) by our 7-year-old Granddaughter, Bianca.

She will be coming to our 3D Printing in Education workshop in Indianapolis later this week.  From fine arts to STEM education, 3D printing is a powerful tool!

 

I have two 3D printers already, and am familar with several others that look interesting.  In my quest to stay on top of this dynamic field, a few weeks ago I got a da Vinci 1.0 3D printer from Studica (www.studica.com/XYZprinting),  a company whose focus is on hardware and software products for education.  Studica sells a complete line of 3D printers, but the one that caught my attention was the da Vinci.  This machine retails for $499, which is staggeringly low when you look at the system.  First, it has a very large print volume – 20cm by 20cm by 20cm.  This makes it one of the largest print beds in the under $2,000 printer category.  The ABS filament is provided in nicely designed cartridges that don’t cost an arm and a leg.  The overall look of the printer is quite elegant.  The transparent case lets you see everything as it is printing (especially if you turn on the interior light.)  A built-in display lets you do a lot of tasks (such as loading or changing filament) without having a computer attached.

img_davinciThis printer uses a glass print bed that you coat with a thin layer of glue from a regular glue stick.  The advantage of this adhesive method is that you don’t generally need to print using a “raft” – a layer of plastic put down by the nozzle  before the parts are printed.  Another nice touch is that the print nozzle is automatically cleaned after printing and any extra filament strands are placed in a box that can be removed later to get rid of scraps.  The internal hardware looks very well designed.  In fact, just looking inside this machine made me think I was looking at a very high end printer!

As with any 3D printer, it is essential to be sure the print bed is calibrated properly, otherwise the parts will look awful.  The da Vinci printer is calibrated at the factory, but, in shipping, the calibration screws may get jarred from their optimal positions.   Fortunately, this is easy to fix, and the technical support team sent me a link to a short video to show, step by step, how to align the print bed.  The print head has a special electrode on it that is brought into contact with the build plate hardware at three locations.  The built-in display then lets you know what adjustments are needed, or, if it is in the range of automatic alignment, to accept the new settings.  In my experience, this task only needs to be done once.

da vinci softwareAs for printing, you simply connect the printer to your computer using a USB port and run the supplied software.  From this program you load a file you’ve created or downloaded in the form of an STL file – the format most often used on 3D printers.  Once you press the Print button, the print bed is heated to about 100C while your object model is sliced into layers so the part can be built layer by layer.  Once printing has started, the built-in display lets you know how long the print job will take.  If you want, you can disconnect your computer from the printer at this point so it can be used for other things (like designing more things to print!)

Once the printer is finished with a job, the bed is cooled down and moved to the bottom to make it easy to remove your design.  The manufacturer provides a plastic scraper to separate the part from the bottom of the build plate.  My experience is that, once the part has cooled down, the plastic contracts just a bit, and it is easy to snap the part from the plate, leaving a very smooth finish on the bottom, and the build plate ready to be cleaned and coated with a new thin glue layer.

As for print quality, the parts are not quite as nicely finished as those I make on my Afinia printer, but for most school projects it is pretty good.  The downside is that this printer takes a lot of time to print projects.  In a school setting, time is important; but the large build plate might let you print several student projects at a time, making this less of an issue.

Overall, I rate the industrial design very high.  The price is unbelievably low.  Technical support is wonderful.  The only downsides when compared with more expensive printers is the print time and slightly reduced print quality.  Taking everything into consideration, the da Vinci 1.0 is a good buy for those wanting to get involved in 3D printing.  Later, some may choose to scale up to more expensive printers with higher print quality and faster speed, but, even then, this printer will get a lot of use!

 

My friend, Peter Skillen (http://theconstructionzone.wordpress.com/blog), coined a term I really like – “Tinkering-Based Learning” (TBL.)  While this kind of learning can take place within the broader context of Project-Based Learning, it differs in that the student learns by tinkering with ideas in the quest to build something.  In terms of Seymour Papert’s ideas, this would be called Constructionist (as opposed to Constructivist) learning.  It also accurately represents what a lot of engineering design is about – tinkering with ideas, trying things out, and repeating the process until you get the resulting design you are looking for.  I once heard an engineer from Rolls Royce jet engine division say that it takes about 20 tries to get a design right.  Very clearly this is not what most classroom practice looks like.

ImageMy interest in this topic was rewarded last week when we attended part of a week-long summer camp on 3D printing designed by Kim Brand and his colleagues at 3D Parts Manufacturing (http://www.3dpartsmfg.com/).  This camp, in Indianapolis, Indiana, had about a dozen boys and girls ranging from grade 6 to 11 who were enticed by the idea that they could build objects of their own design.

On the software side of things, most students used cloud-based tools like Tinkercad and 123D Design, although there are many rich software titles from which to choose.  In fact, our list of favorite titles is shown in an earlier blog.  Students were encouraged to design and build something that was practical, and to also design something that was playful.  It was great to see the intensity with which the kids worked, and how willing they were to help each other out if someone got stuck.  There was no formal instruction on the use of the software beyond letting them know that when their project was finished it needed to be exported as an STL file so it could be printed.

ImageTwo printers were provided by Kim Brand – his “STEAM engines” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics.)  These printers operate at a sufficiently rapid speed that many students were able to get their projects printed right away.  Projects submitted on the last day were printed and sent to the students later.

From our standpoint, the enthusiasm of the kids was amazing to see.  They were working on their projects non-stop, driven by nothing more than the desire to design and build their own creations.

The summer camp model makes a lot of sense because you can have kids work together all day long for five days – plenty of time to do some amazing work.  But this doesn’t mean that TBL doesn’t have a home in ordinary classrooms.  The challenge is for teachers to create opportunities for kids to solve real problems.  A single problem may take several class periods to finish (although a few of the students worked on their designs from home in the evening.)  The point is that TBL does not have to be devoid of structure.  In fact, the more meaningful the problem, the more powerful the activity.

An example we have used with students is potentially quite important in the future.  Imagine a trip to Mars – the likelihood is that the ship will not have every conceivable spare part, but will have a 3D printer of the kind made by Made in Space scheduled to go to the ISS this year (http://www.madeinspace.us).   Imagine that the outer wall of the craft is hit by space debris, creating an ugly hole through which air is leaking out of the ship.  The challenge is to design and build a plug that stops the leak.  This design can be done with free software (like Sketchup Make) and, once each team compares designs with others, a final design can be made, printed, and installed, this saving the mission.

ImageOf course, this is just one of myriad challenges you can imagine, each of which can be correlated with your school’s math and science standards.

But the coolest thing of all to imagine is how we can bring the real power of TBL into classrooms throughout the world!

Image

As I returned from the MakerFaire in San Mateo, California a few weeks ago, I was amazed at how this movement had grown to attract 150,000 people to one place for a weekend of “the greatest show and tell on earth. ” With all this enthusiasm, one can be forgiven for thinking that this is a new movement when, in fact, it has roots running back quite a few years. A quick search on Google Trends shows nothing before 2007, but this is simply not true.

After writing earlier books on Logo for the MSX computers in the 1980’s, the Brazilian educational leader, Norma Godoy, decided , in 1992, to raise the bar on student programming by incorporating robotics into her currculum. Rather than just connect Logo to simple floor “turtles” that would move along based on Logo commands, she thought that the world of robotics was completely open, and that students should be allowed to build and program anything they wanted. Now before you say “Lego Mindstorms,” you need to know that product didn’t become available until 1998. And even if it had been available in Brazil, the high cost of Lego bricks meant that, once a project was completed, it had to be taken apart so others could use the bricks in their own designs.

predioRather than work with scarce and expensive materials, Norma decided to build her program around recycled materials – plastic soda bottles, cardboard, and other easily found items which were then assembled into projects containing motors and lights so they could be programmed by the student’s computer. This required a hardware interface to control these motors and lights. The interface she inspired engineers, (one at ORT and one at ARS Consult both in Brazil) to create, was connected to the parallel port (remember those?) of the computer with signals then sent to various outputs.

Since cheap LEDs were not available at the time, small bulbs from Christmas lights were used. The most expensive parts were the stepper motors taken from dead hard drives, or purchased for a few dollars.

Armed with this arsenal of tools, the key element was the creativity of the students who built amazing things. For example, one ROB1student built a model of a garage door opener that worked by flashing the car lights into a photosensor that then told the Logo program to open the door. The garage itself was made from a cardboard box, and a jar lid was used at the pivot for the door to open.

One can only imagine what students would do today with inexpensive 3D printers being used to make custom gears and other parts that are hard to make from recycled materials!

At one time, many thousands of students were using these materials throughout Brazil. and Norma started presenting her work at international conferences, such as the 1997 CUE conference in California. One of the teachers Norma taught led a team of students into the prize winning round of the First Robotics competition a few years ago.

Now that companies are entering the educational robotics arena with kits that take advantage of recyced matrials, it is important to reflect on this rich history today. It is interesting to see the attention these new comanies get at educational conferences from teachers, some of whom were in school themselves when this robotics movement was started.

When we look at these products, it gives us a chance to reflect on how student robotics is far from a new idea!

In the spirit of full disclusre, Norma Godoy has been known as Norma Thornburg since 2000 and she and I are actively engaged in everything from 3D printing in the classroom http://amzn.to/1pyeaqk and soft circuits.

As 3D printers come into homes and schools, you will be looking for tools that let you make your own designs.  Here are a few free titles that I think should be on your list:

Inkscape is primarily a drawing program for two-dimensional designs. It is an amazingly powerful tool that even automates the process of drawing complex objects like gears.  Drawings created in Inkscape can be saved in the SVG (scalable vector graphic) format so they look great at any magnification.  You can also export images in traditional graphics formats like PNG (portable network graphic) that looks great when used on websites, etc. But the real power of Inkscape as a 3D drawing tool comes when you install the support plug-in for 3D extrusion to an OpenSCAD file (described later)  that can be rendered and exported as an STL file for the printer to use.  The way this works is that you select the part of the drawing you want to extrude into a three-dimensional shape.  When you choose the extrusion option, you just indicate how many millimeters you want the extrusion to be, and a 3D file for OpenSCAD is generated automatically.  To get this shape to your printer, the next step is to open it in OpenSCAD, compile the image, and save it as an STL file.  STL (Stereolithography) files are the format your printer expects to see when it starts the process of getting your model ready to print. This sounds laborious, but it is easy to get the hang of it, and the whole process goes very quickly.

You may be wondering why I would mention a (primarily) two-dimensional drawing tool in the context of 3D printing.  The reason is that, while building 3D objects on the computer screen is likely a new task to students, they probably use two-dimensional art programs all the time.  Our goal is to build from this strength on the path to (later) creating designs with 3D drawing tools.

While I will largely use OpenSCAD as an extrusion tool for Inkscape, it is, in fact, a full 3D modeling program that builds models from text commands.  It has its own programming language that might be appropriate for high-schoolers to play with.  An advantage of building geometric models in OpenSCAD is that they can be “parameterized” – expressed in a way that lets one design make several related shapes by changing the values of a few variables.  For example, a propeller can be designed in OpenSCAD in a way that lets the end user change the number and size of the blades.  This is a real feature, and quite a few Thingiverse models include OpenSCAD files for just that reason.  Used in this way, students can tinker with existing models to create a custom part for their construction.  The final model is displayed on the screen to be sure it is what you want before saving it as an STL file.

Sketchup is a professional 3D modeling tool that is super for creating geometric structures from scratch (architectural designs, for example).  The free version (Sketchup Make) has all the features that students might need to build models of the parts they want to print.  If your model can be built from boxes, cylinders, and balls, it is a great tool.  It is not what I would choose for more organic shapes, though.  The Sketchup Extension Warehouse has a free plug-in that lets you export your finished part as an STL file directly.  My only caution about this tool is that it is not the best program for editing completed STL files.  They show up as a mass of dots and triangles, and I haven’t found a way to render the surfaces as nicely as you can from models made in Sketchup in the first place.  This is a shame, because older versions of Sketchup handled imported STL files much better.  The good news is that there are many other alternatives for you to use.

This program also lets you create projects from scratch using a library of geometric shapes.  My experience is that it is easier to align parts in 3DTin than it is in Tinkercad (another cloud-based design tool).  3DTin lets you download your drawing as an STL file ready to print!

Autodesk is one of the premiere publishers on computer-aided design software.  Their products are found in design firms and architects offices all over the world.

They decided to support the beginning 3D designer with a rich suite of tools that covers the gamut from parts designed from geometric pieces, to the more organic designs suitable for modeling living organisms.  In fact, Clark Barnett, a teacher in  the Conejo Valley Unified School District  in California does a project with his kids using one of the Autodesk applications on the iPad – 123D Creature.  With this tool, students design their own insects that could live in the ecosystem of their classroom.  Once printed, these “insects” are mounted in a display tray and students explain why their insect is likely to survive on its own in the classroom ecosystem.

While not geared specifically for “creature” creation, Autodesk has a wonderful free product called Meshmixer that is perfect for creating organic, rather than geometric shapes.

This tool lets you sculpt by hand as if you were working with clay.  Anyone who has worked with modeling clay will know how to use the tools in this program, and there is a great manual to show exactly how to get the most from this program.  Tools like this bring 3D printing into the life sciences classroom.

This amazing tool is a great next step for Meshmixer users.  It was designed for sculptors (and would-be sculptors), instead of a blank screen you are presented with a round ball of “clay” that can be shaped into just about anything you want.  While not geared toward the creation of geometric objects, it is a perfect tool for building models of various creatures – both real and imagined.  Finished projects are exported as OBJ files that can be easily converted to STL files by Meshlab (see below).  Once you start working with this tool, hours happily go by as you build amazing things, all of which can be built on your 3D printer.  This software comes with good documentation and links to some video tutorials I highly recommend for anyone interested in this tool.

This program lets you build mathematical knots of all kinds.  While created for math geeks, knots are pretty to look at, and students can use this program to explore this branch of mathematics – a worthwhile activity in itself.  One great feature of this program is that it lets you export your finished knot as an OBJ file if you want to tweak it in Meshlab (see below).  You can also export your image as an STL file directly and send it to your printer software with no further work required.  Finished knots can be sent out for metal plating in case you want to make your own jewelry. (You probably have some service providers in your area that will do this inexpensively.)

Other tools:

Sometimes (as with Sculptris) your 3D images will be exported as OBJ files that need to be converted to STL files so they can be printed.  Meshlab does this job beautifully and even lets you adjust the mesh from which the model is defined to optimize it for printing.  This optimization process lets you clean up your model so it will print perfectly.

This is the plug-in you need to allow Inkscape to create extrusions for OpenSCAD.  All the instructions are provided in the web link shown above.

And there are more good programs coming out all the time, so keep your eyes open and let us know what you find (info@knights-of-knowledge.com)!

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