I have recently been giving quite a lot of thought into what makes a good CAD and 3D printing project for my students to work on. … And it has really started to stretch my mind :o)
There's a lot of buzz about 3D printing at the moment and with a few different initiatives kicking off in education in England (and the world) I started to think about what all the newly acquired 3D printers were going to be used for in Design and Technlogy and STEM subjects. As anyone who has used a 3D printer will know it isn't ever going to produce instant results so the temptation is to get the students to design small objects. Objects that are as flat as possible keeping print time to a minimum so that whole class sets can be “banged out”. This fills me with horror, what are we going to see this 21st Century technology producing? …. KEYTAGS !!! :o(
So what do we need to do?….
One of the first things to consider is “Why do we have to print every design?”… Only printing a few of the “best” designs from a group of students isn't all that bad. In fact in my experience it can introduce an element of competition into the learning experience. And students do work harder and produce better thought out designs in trying to make sure that they can print theirs. Being open and honest about this from the start of the project avoids any disappointment and also brings a bit of reality to the classroom… In the real world it is after all only the best designs that make it to manufacture and succeed in the market place.
We should also consider why we are using 3D printing as a method of manufacturing designs in the first place. To my mind the great advantage of 3D printing is that it is one of the few ways of designing and making things in school that allows true iterative designing and of course iterative designing is one of the key elements of the 2014 National Curriculum in England. With 3D printing it is possible to make a design relatively quickly (especially compared to the many hours that can be spent in using hand tools to make an object), so after testing and evaluating the printed object it is quite feasible to go through another iterative cycle and make improved versions of the product.
Having now considered how many objects to print and using iterative designing within the projects I might be a bit closer to thinking about a “fit for purpose” 3D designing and printing project, but there are some other things that should be taken into account.
Designing for “fit”… It may seem obvious but many projects don't really require students to design products that properly fit together. Over the last couple of days I have been playing around with a sort of desk tidy idea and this is perhaps a good example of what I have been thinking about. I wanted something that not only looked cool but was functional on my desk, so I had the idea of doing a “spiral thing with pencils”…. Easy, or so I thought! I roughly measured the diameter of a pencil and made some angled holes in a base… But what I didn't take into account was that the angle changed the shape of the holes, they became elliptical and the “fit” of the pencils wasn't good….. Grrrr! … So my next iteration took this into account by making the holes conical to match the taper of the pencils (and a bit bigger too so that the points wouldn't be broken). This time it was better but I hadn't taken into account the diameter of the base that would space out my 20 pencils correctly but also economically use materials…. And now I found that the pencils were a sloppy fit and didn't always line up properly. Anyway, my point is that a project that has to function properly and fit together accurately can be a lot more challenging than it first appears.
So, am I any further with thinking up new projects for students? Well, yes and no. I'm a lot clearer in what I want the projects to do, I just need to think more about the context for the products and find something that will grab the students attention, challenge their designing and thinking skills and build on their creativity!… Time to ask the students what they think!