It’s back to the future, all over again. The trend in schools to create Maker Labs, complete with 3D printers, laser cutters, etc., is exciting, but really not that different than traditional shop classes. Of course, modern tools are now infused with technology, but there’s another difference that may be even more critical to the success of Maker Labs: software.
In order to create something from scratch and then 3D print it, students must learn how to use a 3D modeling software program. These programs are difficult, to say the least. Even an entry level product like Tinkercad requires that you think in 3D, on a 2D screen. The ability to mentally rotate a 3D object varies widely from person to person. Plus, it takes practice to think about subtracting space from a 3D object (which is why sculpting and woodcarving are difficult). Finally, designing objects to be water-tight and with surfaces and support structures that allow for actual 3D printing is challenging.
In other words, it simply isn’t enough to teach students how to use a 3D printer. We also have to provide 3D modeling software that is easily mastered and additional educational software that directly supports curriculum objectives. Let’s face it, students love 3D printing, and that enthusiasm needs to be harnessed to achieve specific learning outcomes.
What if we create educational software that allows students to simulate different options for their 3D project, prior to printing it out? Through this process, students can test out their assumptions and learn from their mistakes, without wasting valuable filament and print time. Legacy Interactive (my company) is working on a 3D printed microscope that does exactly that.
Legacy’s unique simulation software allows students to make limited changes to a 3D model, and get accurate feedback, prior to printing. Students arrive at a correct solution, through a trial and error process informed by the relevant math. Here’s how it works:
- Students can vary the length of the microscope’s body tube; there are 3 different settings to choose from.
- Students can vary the placement of 4 different lenses, vary the orientation of the lenses (convex VS concave), and vary the distance between the lenses.
- There is an optimum relationship between the length of the body tube and the placement and orientation of each lens, that is determined by algebraic equations provided in the student worksheets. Included in the teacher materials is information about the science of optics, convergent and divergent lenses, magnification, focal length, etc.
- Students try out different solutions and get appropriate feedback from the program, e.g., “your microscope is out of focus.” They may try many permutations and combinations of options before resorting to solving the problem with the given math formulas.
- There are numerous correct solutions; when the student has arrived at one, the program tells them that they can proceed to the next phase or to print, if the project is now complete.
We believe that this is truly an educational process, where students learn the required curriculum content exactly when they need it, to solve a real-world problem. This process makes learning relevant, timely, open-ended (with multiple solutions) and engaging. Best of all, you have a real working microscope to show for your efforts!
If 3D printing is going to be successful in schools, the trick isn’t just in making user-friendly 3D printers; it’s about enabling project based learning tied to specific curriculum objectives. We believe simulation software, combined with easy-to-modify 3D models, is the key to success.