Teaching for STEM Success in High School with a 3D Printing Curriculum

CJ Bryant has done a lot of thinking about success.

“One of the things I’ve discovered over the years is, success is something that can be taught. You don’t wake up in the morning and you’re successful. Somebody teaches you how to be successful.”

He’s in the position of being the shepherd of success for young people who have previously struggled with it in the classroom setting. Bryant is the Technology Coordinator at the Phoenix School in Roseburg, Oregon, a charter school for students who weren’t flourishing academically in the standard high school environment. “All the students here were at risk at one time of academic failure,” he explains.

All this changes when they reach Bryant’s classroom.

A Hands-on Approach

The learning that happens under Bryant’s watch is project-based and hands-on, and, often unbeknownst to the students, supplementing the work they’re doing in other courses.

“This room is 100% mathematics,” he explains.

Bryant’s classroom looks like a hybrid computer lab – machine shop. One half is lined with desks and monitors; the other, filled with equipment: a vinyl cutter, laser cutter, drone, foundry, and 3D printer.

The hands-on approach is Bryant’s way of getting through to students for whom learn-by-doing may click where formulas in a textbook fall short.

“[The students] will come down here after being in a math class and they’ll just be really frustrated,” he explains. “And you’re like, ‘Wait a second, why is geometry bothering you? You’re doing geometry in this CAD drawing. This is geometry.’”

Bryant has found that the real-world approach resonates with students, giving them tangible, tactile applications of the information they’re studying in other classes. “This is where math becomes real and applicable. It’s what makes math real and important. It’s not just some formula on a board that you have to memorize.”

Baby Spoons and Chess Pieces

As the head of the school’s technology program, 3D printing was naturally on Bryant’s radar early-on.

He wanted a workhorse machine that could handle a constant stream of projects from his classroom: both large, singular pieces as well as bulk batches of student projects. He quickly found himself disappointed.

“I started looking for 3D printers and all there were these little tiny ones on the market, and that was useless,” he explains.

He began attending 3D printing meet-ups to gain a better sense of the landscape and hopefully pick up some printer recommendations. “I probably went to five or six workshops on 3D printing, and they would have these tiny little things there,” he lamented. His frustration mounted.

“In the last one I went to I said, ‘Okay, other than baby spoons and chess pieces, what can you make with this?’”

Bryant took his search online and stumbled across the original re:3D Kickstarter page. At that point the campaign was long over, but it led Bryant to re:3D, and thus to Gigabot.

“I went to my boss and I said, ‘We need this.’”

Building a Bot

Bryant’s boss bit, and shortly thereafter his students found themselves elbow-deep in the project of assembling a Gigabot parts kit.

“That was our first fun project with it,” Bryant muses. The learning experience of building the machine from start to finish was incredibly valuable for students, as they came to understand how the components work together on an intimate level.

Their next fun project came from the school’s art teacher, who approached Bryant and asked if he could print a classical face for drawing students to use as a practice model. Bryant and his students downloaded a 3D scan of the Smithsonian’s marble bust of Augustus Caesar and pressed print on their Gigabot.

As their first major print, they were still getting the feel for best print settings, and so the head weighs a hefty several pounds. “It took five, six days,” says Bryant, “but it turned out fantastic.” They learned to dial down the infill on future prints.

From Classroom Success to Real-World Wins

The Phoenix School Gigabot has been kept busy on a wide variety of projects since.

“One of the things that we wanted the 3D printer for was robotics,” explains CJ. He is unimpressed by the robotics kits often sold to high schools. “Everything’s already in there. There’s nothing to imagine: you put the kit together and you end up with the robot that you bought the kit for. I don’t want to do that.”

He wants a challenge for his students, something that pushes their creativity and problem-solving skills. “I want to come up with a task and then design a robot to fit the task,” he says. “With the Gigabot, we can print the arms, we can print the gears…everything we need, we can print. It opens the door to custom-built robotics, so we can design a robot to do whatever we want the robot to do.”

It’s clear what is on the top of Bryant’s mind as he builds his lesson plans. Woven into the fabric of every project in his classroom is the common thread of success; specifically, making sure he sets his students up for it.

Bryant views success as a teachable, stepping stone path that he very deliberately guides students down.

“At one point in time, we had our first big success. We had our ‘Aha!’ moment where we realized, ‘Hey, I can do that,’” he explains. “We learned, we experienced success, and success becomes a ladder to a successful future. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

For Bryant, the first step comes in the form of a 3D printed luggage tag/dog tag. “One of the reasons I have them make this…is most of the skills that they will need to use the CAD program for are wrapped up in this dog tag.” Within the project is a foundation of expertise that his students will continue to build on: a variety of CAD features, uniqueness (each student designs a tag with their own name on it), and operating a 3D printer to bring them to life.

“With our student population, a lot of our students have never experienced success academically before,” he explains. “So you give them a project that they can do. I won’t tell you they can’t fail – they have to work pretty hard at it – but you give them a project and you make sure that they succeed.”

Bryant sets his students up: he has a video tutorial for the students to follow along with as they design, and it’s common to see students helping each other, popping over to others’ computers to lend a hand when needed. At the end of it, each student gets to take home a trophy in the form of their very own personalized, 3D printed name tag.

“Their next project is a bit more difficult,” he explains, “but they have the tools and the recent success to build on.” The carrot in the form of more 3D printed goodies to take home probably doesn’t hurt either.

But Bryant is not interested only in achievement inside the classroom. “We’re interested in not just academic success, we’re interested in student success. It’s the whole piece,” he explains.

The apex of this is the fact that his classroom takes abstract concepts and turns them into concrete, real-world applications. Geometry becomes CAD, which becomes an object a student can hold in their hand, which becomes a job opportunity.

Bryant recalled a recent story: he was talking to the manager of a local business when he mentioned where he worked. “He stopped and he goes, ‘That new girl that works for us. She’s from the Phoenix School.’” Bryant recognized her name, a now-graduated student of his.

“He goes, ‘Man, do you have any more?’”

An Offer for Fellow Educators

Bryant has seen the school’s investment in 3D printing pay off for their students, and he’s learned some lessons along the path to where he is now.

His advice for other teachers looking to convince their schools to make a similar investment?

“Have a direction that you want to go with the 3D printer.” He’s asked teachers from other schools what they would want to do with one, and sometimes gets vague answers along the lines of, “Well, anything. Just think of everything we could print.”

They’re not wrong, he explains, but it helps the acquisition process to have a concrete proposal in place. “Have a direction you want to go with your 3D printer. Make a plan, even if it’s kind of out there a little bit. ‘If we had a 3D printer, we could…’ and fill in the blank.”

Bryant sees CAD and the doors it opens as the 21st century shop class. “We’re getting a whole different group of kids and we’re exposing them to this form of technology, and we’re doing more and more with it in the workplace. Ergo, we need to train the kids.”

He believes in it so much so that he has an offer for any teachers out there seeing his story.

“If you need lesson plans, call me. I’ll give you my lesson plans. You won’t be the first I’ve given them to and you won’t be the last, but I’ll give away my lesson plans for the first year. I think that much of this of this technology. My lesson plans are yours and I’ll talk you through them.”

All the work is worth it, as other educators will likely understand, to see the lightbulb turn on for students who may have previously been feeling their way through school in the dark.

“That’s what keeps this job fun and exciting,” Bryant smiles. The students are often very skeptical when they first enter his classroom, and then something clicks.

“By the time they’ve been in the program for a year or so, it’s, ‘Do you think we could?’ Then they start asking the real important two questions; ‘Why not?’ and ‘What if?’ And that’s the beauty of the 3D printer. I think 3D printing is only limited by our imagination at this point.”

Are you a teacher who would like to take CJ up on his lesson plan offer? Send him an email at cjbryant [at] roseburgphoenix.com

Grand Opening of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering Veterans Future Lab

On Monday of this week I had the privilege of attending the Grand Opening of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering Veterans Future Lab in Brooklyn, New York.

A very special lineup of speakers graced the event, including New York State Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, Dean of Engineering at NYU Katepalli Sreenivasan, New York State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, Barclays Group Chief Executive Officer Jes Staley, and one of the the engineering school’s namesakes, business-leader and humanitarian Chandrika Tandon.

Housed in Industry City on Brooklyn’s “Innovation Coastline,” the lab will be an early-stage startup incubator for United States military veterans.

More than a third of all returning military veterans have entrepreneurial ambitions, speakers at the event remarked, but just under 5% launch their own businesses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With some 18 million veterans in the country, that’s a lot of unrealized business ideas.

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul told a story about a moment that left a profound impression on her on a visit she made to an American military base in Afghanistan. Sitting around a table with a group of soldiers, she asked them about their greatest fears. And in that tent in the barren, almost lunarscape-esque terrain of Afghanistan, in the heart of Taliban territory, the soldiers’ response stunned her. They were worried about finding a job when they returned home.

The Veterans Future Lab addresses exactly this fear.

The goal of the program is to provide business support and mentorship to a group of people who have given so much to serve their country, to enable them to be successful in this next mission in their lives.

With their first round of 15 companies starting in January, the program will offer participants 12 months of incubation, mentorship with New York City industry professionals and NYU faculty, and free legal services, among many more benefits.

One of the other perks of the program is the makerspace.

The businesses will have access to a bona fide buffet of prototyping equipment, from laser jets to water jets, injection machines to sewing machines, and – you guessed it – a Gigabot (among a list of other 3D printers).

As a veteran-owned company ourselves, we couldn’t be more excited to have a Gigabot available to the participants.

Split between the NYU Tandon School of Engineering Makerspace in Downtown Brooklyn and the Veterans Future Lab offices in Industry City, any physical design and prototyping needs the entrepreneurs may have are covered from all angles.

A big deal for not only veterans but also the city and state of New York as a whole, the lab was made possible with the support of Barclays and the Empire State Development Corporation.

As Lieutenant Governor Hochul put it, “This is a very good day in the state of New York.”

Why 3D Printing is Such a Game-Changer for Syracuse University

 

In this final installment of the Syracuse University ITS Makerspace video series, John nails down exactly what makes 3D printing so powerful.

This is a technology that enables.

From businesses to schools, established corporations to garage entrepreneurs, 3D printing allows a mere idea to become something physical. A hazy vision becomes a tangible item that can be held, touched, poked, prodded, and ultimately, sent back to the drawing board and printed again.

All this without ever having to contract out to a third party to tool up a prototype. The entire design and iteration process can be done in-house, affordably and rapidly.

John encompasses the entire spectrum in one – he’s the at-home handyman and tinkerer, while at the same time an educator managing a university makerspace that serves a student body of around 20,000. He sees the potential for this technology through both of these lenses, making his point of view a particularly interesting one.

And from his point of view, 3D printing is a game-changer.

Books & Bots: The Lab in the Library

Clear Lake City, a community in the Bay Area of Greater Houston, is a name you might not immediately recognize, but it’s the site of a couple things you probably will.

Most notably the home of the historic NASA Johnson Space Center, its Mission Control can be picked out in famous scenes from the 1969 moon landing or movies like Apollo 13 and The Martian. It’s the Houston in “Houston, we have a problem.”

Also not to be forgotten in Clear Lake’s list of places you’d know is our very own office.

Just down the street from the re:3D Houston office is another place putting Clear Lake on the map for technological innovation, one which you might not expect: the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library.

“This all started back in 2013 when we were notified that the library was named in a will: Mr. Jocelyn H. Lee’s, whose name is on the lab.”

Jim Johnson, Branch Manager of the library, explains how there came to be a tech innovation lab — complete with laser cutter and multiple 3D printers — in the middle of a library in Clear Lake.

“We had no expectation as to how much he might have left us. Once we did find out, I fell out of my chair. It was about $134,000.”

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Evolving to Survive

The library as an institution has defied odds in the face of technology. Fighting the battle against obsolescence, libraries have made it through multiple threats to their livelihood, their survival owed to the nimbleness of their leadership.

“Largely because of technology, libraries, especially public libraries, have had to constantly adapt,” Jim explains. “Once computers became more prevalent and the internet started making headway, libraries as a rule had to adapt in order to stay alive, and not merely just for the sake of staying relevant, but staying relevant to what’s important to people in the way that they acquire information.”

The unexpected and extremely generous donation was an opportunity for the library to do just that.

“We started looking at some trends out there in public libraries around the country and found that makerspaces were beginning to catch interest in communities. Being such a strong engineering community in Houston — from aerospace to chemical — we thought that we probably had the space here to do that kind of thing. We didn’t really see how we could lose if we did it right.”

So they got to work, repurposing the library’s Quiet Room — “It’s hard to imagine a quiet room being needed in a library,” Jim adds — to accommodate some heavier machinery than most libraries are used to having. Next on the list was finding the right person to head the lab.

 

From Tinkering to Training

 “I was a stay-at-home dad before this.”

Patrick Ferrell was the man brought on for the job of Innovation Lab Trainer. “Before a year ago, the library was a place I brought the kids for storytime. I had never touched a 3D printer until after I found out I got this job.”

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A natural tinkerer and hobbyist, Patrick’s professional background in mechanical engineering and physics lent itself well to what the library was looking to do. He now organizes and leads classes on everything from basic circuits and programming to robotics and structure-building with marshmallows and spaghetti.

“Whatever it looks like we need to do in order to cater to the audience we have,” he explains. “Since we’re the only space like this in the county system — and all of Southeast Texas as far as I know — I have a fair bit of latitude and freedom in what kind of classes we offer. Whatever I think looks like fun is what we do. If other people think it looks like fun too, then they come in and we keep offering it.”

His tactics have been working. As Jim put it, “Any success that the space has had is really largely due to Patrick’s influence.”

Walk into the lab and you’ll see what it’s all about. The walls are lined with eye-catching machinery and class creations. A “Cardboardosaurus” T-rex head hangs above their Gigabot in one corner; in another is an outer-space-themed piece of art made entirely using filament from abandoned and failed 3D prints, the masterpiece of one very creative library shelving assistant. Tribute to the original tech influence of the area you can find several NASA-themed 3D prints around the room, among them a several-foot-tall rocket and a model of the Orion space capsule. The laser cutter was my personal favorite — intricate wood, paper, and cardboard portraits adorned the wall next to the machine — proving that two-dimensions can still be cool.

 

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Trend-Following to Trend-Setting

The recent boom in interest in desktop 3D printers allowed the library to tap into the trend and retain its relevancy in the community by getting several printers for the lab.

With a Gigabot in addition to two desktop-sized Makerbot Replicators, they also have the advantage of boasting a print volume unmatched by many local makerspaces. Because of this, they often get called on when a project has hit the size ceiling at another facility.

One of Patrick’s favorite projects so far was one by a local Houston teenager, Nicholas. He had been working with Techno Chaos, a local makerspace, the director of which knew that the library had a Gigabot.

“The director, Mike, called me up and said, ‘I’ve got this kid who’s designed a Freddy Fazbear costume and we’ve printed it on the MakerBot, but he wants to make it full-size. Do you think you could help him?’”

It was the longest print the library had taken on at the time.

“Just the head of the costume was a 44 hour print. But Nicholas was passionate about the project, and his persistence and perseverance enabled him to complete the entire thing successfully.”

What’s made it all worth it for Patrick is seeing success stories like Nicholas’s. “His parents would come in and say, ‘It’s good to see him excited about this kind of thing.’ Finding some outlet for him to be creative in that way was really great. Seeing him so excited, that’s what made it all so rewarding for me.”

And the sentiment is catching.

Patrick told the story of how Nicholas displayed his large-scale print at his booth at the local maker faire. “The director of the Harris County Public Library system was really impressed with his project. When it came time for budget talks, Nicholas and his dad went before the county commissioner’s court to say, ‘This is why libraries are important. This gives our son a place to go to use tools like this.’ The commissioners then asked, ‘How can I get one of these in my precinct?’ They see someone like Nicholas who’s passionate about this, excited about it, and they want to give more young people access to it.”

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Challenges on the Front Lines of Innovation

Jim and Patrick have seen firsthand what doors the Innovation Lab has opened for the local community, and they understand the value that technologies like 3D printers can bring to the right people.

“Schools are starting to have the smaller printers, so if you’re doing a school project, that’s great,” Patrick explains. “But if you’re doing a personal project, then you’re kind of out of luck. You’re either sending your file off to Shapeways and paying outrageous amounts, or you have to find someone on 3D Hubs, but it’s really hard to find somewhere that can print at the scale of what’s possible on Gigabot.”

On top of large-scale printing, there is another big selling point that sets the Innovation Lab apart from similar spaces in the area and around the country.

“What’s special about our makerspace is that we don’t charge dues or membership fees,” says Patrick. “The only thing you’re paying for is the material you use.”

The fact that the space remains open and accessible to the community is a core tenet of the library. The creative potential there is seemingly limitless — the machinery they have on hand coupled with its accessibility is a recipe for unbridled innovation. But being the first to tread through this territory means the library is crossing bridges as they go; the excitement of being on the front lines of innovation comes hand-in-hand with its challenges.

One thing they’ve encountered is the gap between the public’s general expectation of 3D printing and the reality of the technology.

“I don’t know, you mean I have to design it myself? Can’t you just design it for me? I have a picture, can’t we use that? What if I sketch it out on a piece of paper? I found this picture on the internet, is that good enough?” Patrick runs through the common questions he gets from some people when they first come in to 3D print. “Once we get over that hurdle, then people are more interested and they’ll start printing.”

Another thing they struggle with is demand for large-scale 3D printing, due in part to the gimmicky phase that desktop 3D printing is going through.

“Many people who come in are printing little trinkets. It satisfies the ‘Hey look, I 3D printed something’ desire, and they don’t need to go further,” says Patrick.

People are still figuring out how they can use 3D printing to make something practical. The intent in creating Gigabot was to serve just that purpose: a 3D printer at a scale large enough to print practical, real-world objects rather than just small trinkets.

Patrick speculates that the intimidation factor of the sheer size of a large-scale 3D printer adds to this tendency to avoid Gigabot in favor of their desktop printers. With a steep learning curve for 3D printing in general, expanding the build volume several orders of magnitude certainly can complicate things.

This is something that may prove to be the biggest challenge for libraries looking to open internal makerspaces: how do you tap into and attract the group of people who have a genuine need and use for these technologies? A long-term sustainable plan may not be able to rely on a stream of one-time visitors only there to print their name on a keychain and check a box on their bucket list, not to return again.

What spaces like this need are superusers, people who will return week after week, month after month, because they have a practical use for the machinery.

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Lessons Learned for Libraries

 At re:3D, we talk to a lot of people — inventors, entrepreneurs, tinkerers — with a clear use for large-scale 3D printing, but a lack of a budget with which to get one. To have access to a space where the only cost is a material fee would be the difference between bringing a product to market and never having the idea leave the drawing board.

A big reason 3D printing has flourished as a tool for businesses is its knack for prototyping. Companies can eliminate the need for third-party designers and injection mold do-overs, saving sizable chunks of time and money in the design and prototyping process. With a 3D printer, you could have a prototype made for as much money as it costs to do a few loads of laundry at the laundromat, in nearly the same amount of time. As Patrick explains, “Gigabot is great for designing a prototype which you want to market or show off to investors.”

Because of this, referrals have been a boon to the library, allowing them to offer their equipment to exactly these kinds of people: the garage entrepreneurs with plenty of ideas but not a lot of ways to make them a reality. Local makerspaces like the one that referred Nicholas — as well as the Houston Inventor’s Association, which also sends people their way who want to print big prototypes — have started to get the word out to their user bases.

In the meantime, the library is forging their own path in this new era of how communities interact with their local libraries. Jim is walking proof of the open and innovative mindset that must come with the librarian territory.

“I think that libraries are more about information and knowledge — a place to keep it and a place to use it — and I think makerspaces are a place to use information that you acquire. This is part of the reason why I think this is an excellent fit for libraries and allows them to remain relevant, not just for the sake of staying relevant, but as a practical place to learn something by doing. I think that hopefully, if other libraries catch on to this, you can easily have libraries remaining relevant not only as a place to absorb and acquire information, but also to use it in a practical way.

This has changed my perspective on libraries being only about books.

 

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Do you or someone you know live in the area?  Go check out the Jocelyn H. Lee Innovation Lab on the second floor of the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library.

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