6 Stages from Replication to Innovation in 3D Printing

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Image: Flickr/fdecomite cc license
Image: Flickr/fdecomite cc license

Today in my son’s 3rd grade class at Friends’ School Boulder, we had catapults three ways: free build with one-by wood and twisted twine, glue-together premade kits, and Ben Leduc-Mills from Sparkfun graciously 3D printing little ballistae. After the kids had prototyped, iterated, and then joyously flung plastic pigs at knights lined up around the room, the so-called “adults” sat down to chat about technology and innovation in the classroom. It’s kind of a neat group. Ben, with Sparkfun’s education department, is working on a PhD in computer science. My wife, Kristi, is a PhD psychologist, former teacher, and educator in residence at Sparkfun until they kick her out. My son’s teacher, Tyler, has boots on the ground in a classroom where real, live children learn about medieval technology by catapulting plastic pigs. And I… well, at least I know how to use a cordless drill.

The topic turned to what the heck to do with a 3D printer in the classroom. Of course we all know that 3D printing will change the world. We will print houses and hearts and hands and hotdogs and branded action figures. And our kids will be the ones who lead us by the rings in our noses into this brave new world. So how do we get kids from the “Oh wow, it’s a 3D printer!” stage to the stage of innovation that will let them realize the potential of this device that seems to be teetering on the precipice of mainstream?

Um… Ben, Kristi, Tyler, and I really don’t know. But as we talked, we started to coalesce on the idea of stages that kids tend to go through when meeting a 3D printer for the first time. How to guide kids through these stages is another can of worms. But do these stages sound about right? Has this been your experience with kids and 3D printing as well? Here’s our take on a framework that leads kids from fascination to innovation in 3D printing:

1. Oh wow it’s a 3D printer!

In this stage kids (and adults) watch mesmerized as the little extruder zips around doing its work of extruding. I could watch this for hours. In fact, I have. My guess is you have too.

2. Oh wow, it makes ballistae!

You may already know this, but I was fascinated to hear Ben talk about what he calls the keychain effect: when kids (or adults) see a 3D printer or any new technology making a keychain, we/they tend to see keychain-making as the machine’s sole purpose. Then even when they’re asked to brainstorm possible uses of the machine, the ideas tend to center of design tweaks for keychains. Today in the classroom, kids asked how long it would take to make a ballista, if Ben had designed the ballista himself, if they could have a ballista to take home. And it took a great leap of understanding to see that the 3D printer could, in fact, make more than just ballistae.

3. Oh wow, I can make more than a ballista!

Indeed, kids were eventually able to grock the idea that they could go to Thingiverse.com, download plans, pipe them to the printer, and then print any small figure, gizmo, toy or thingamawhatzit displayed at the site. It didn’t take too long to see that the 3D printer could deliver neat things. But besides the immediacy of printing, the difference between 3D printing and, say, ordering something from Amazon was a bit ephemeral.

4. Oh wow, I could make a model of… anything!

The Taj Mahal, a frieze from the Parthenon, awesome cars, a bobble-head of your teacher–anything you see in the world can be scanned and miniaturized. Some kids saw the potential to make models of anything they see in the world. In this stage, kids realize that even if something doesn’t exist on Amazon, they could use a 3D printer to make it.

5. Oh wow, I could make real things!

But what’s the use beyond models and figures? Of course, you and I know that rather than going to the hardware store and searching for the right parametric knurled hex nut, or Dremel router remix, or spine protector for bicyclists, we can just print it. But you’d be amazed at the difficulty in helping kids understand that a 3D printer can make more than toys–that it can make real things for the real world. It can make things you need.

6. Oh wow, I could make things that aren’t yet real!

Here’s the rub: not only can a 3D printer model and replicate existing things (whether or not they’re for sale on Amazon), but it can allow you to immediately innovate new things. Look out, injection molding, there’s a new sheriff in town. Now, when an inventor or prototyper or tinkerer or hacker has an idea swimming in the 3D space of his or her mind, that person is minutes (okay, hours…) away from holding it in their hands. Almost any shape you can imagine, you can have. And this most certainly includes shapes that no one has ever thought of before, perhaps even for purposes no one has thought of before. A 3D printer lets motivated, creative and moderately skilled people not only replicate, but innovate.

This final step seems the endpoint for 3D printers in the classroom, making them not just a cool novelty but a tool that teaches thinking and design skills–a tool that lets kids hold in their hands shapes they see in their imaginations. Is this really the shape of a student’s comprehension? And how do we move them along the continuum? We would all love to know!

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