How 3D Printers Advance Museum-based Learning: Interview with MakerBot’s Founder, bre pettis, and Education lead, Lizabeth Arum

How can 3D printers be used to advance informal science and museum-based learning? This is a question I have been exploring over the past few months (and will be addressing next week at MakerBot’s Lecture Series on May 21st – register here). To learn more I turned to two experts, bre pettis, a co-founder and the CEO of MakerBot Industries, and Lizabeth Arum, MakerBot’s Education Outreach and Curriculum Development.

Bre, Why don’t you start us off by explaining the concept of 3D printing and the source of your interest?

Lizabeth Arum

bre: I’ve always been a tinkerer. I wanted a 3D printer but couldn’t afford one so me and some friends had to make one. When it worked, we quit our jobs and started MakerBot. At MakerBot we’re leading the next industrial revolution by empowering creative explorers to make things.

Lizabeth, what does it mean to be MakerBot’s Education Outreach and Curriculum Development?

Lizabeth: As Education Coordinator I work to get educators up and running quickly with a MakerBot. I collect curriculum ideas, produce lesson plans, run workshops, and facilitate relationships—connecting people and ideas so that teachers think less about the software and more about about the larger design concepts or implications of making an idea tangible. The technology is not difficult to use, but sometimes people need help figuring out where to get started. I try to make the process easier.

Earlier this year you and others did some guerilla modelling of museums in Chicago and New York, like at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What was that all about, and what does this say about the character of the emerging 3D community?

Lizabeth: The Met project was an amazing experience. As an undergraduate at Cooper Union, I took classes at the Met and and developed a personal relationship with some pieces in the collection. But this was different. The process of capturing the object using 123DCatch forced me to really look at a piece in a way I had not before. I saw a tremendous amount of previously unseen details while taking the pictures around the object and then had the opportunity to explore the details while working on the mesh. One really develops a strong understanding of form and structure this way. After creating meshes we were tasked with creating our own work from the forms. Ideas were flowing, the only thing we were short of was time.

Lizabeth, you also teach in a school. How are you using MakerBots in your classes?

Lizabeth: I teach 3D Printing at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights to middle and high school students. I spent the first semester teaching about how to model using TinkerCad, SketchUp, Blender, OpenSCAD and MeshMixer. The second semester students are encouraged to develop their own workflows. At this point in the year most of my students have found projects that have captured their full attention.

Some are working on interactive floor plans, others are designing useful or fanciful products. Some are making toys with embedded electronics. Some projects explore kinematics and other students are using the printers to create work for their English and History classes—a model of the Colosseum or  representations of gods and monsters. My students use math concepts in practical ways and have demonstrated their abilities to problem solve.

The process of modeling and printing is not just about creating a solid, watertight form – one has to think about how that model can be printed. Students are creating out of constraints, and these limitations are forcing them to think creatively.

Because the printer allows students to make their ideas tangible, they are inspired by their results to work at a design until it meets their expectations. This process engages their attention and encourages perseverance.

The Math department at Saint Ann’s also has a MakerBot and the teachers have used the printer to demonstrate principles that are not always obvious in two dimensions.

Did I hear NYU/Poly was getting into the game?

Lizabeth: That’s right. NYU-Poly has graduate fellows that have used MakerBots in NYC public city classrooms and the Poly’s Science of Smart Cities uses Makerbotted-parts to demonstrate engineering concepts used to make urban living sustainable

So what sort of specific topics are they teaching?

Lizabeth: 3D printers are allowing teachers and students to produce and share models across many disciplines. For example, biomechanics (finger and knee joints, tendon extensor mechanisms), biology (folded proteins, demonstrating docking geometries), aeronautics (wing shapes, wind-tunnel models), math (3D fractals, knots, polytopes, manifolds, regular polygons) and art (sculpture, objects of antiquity).

Wow. Where else can we find models of how to use 3D printers for science education or museum-based learning?

LizabethThingiverse has an ever expanding collection of 3D models. And as more educators, institutions (Universities, AMNH, NySci, etc) and students create and share models that speak to science education it will be easier to use this technology with wider audiences.

For museums, especially ones that privilege the physical object, what do you think 3D printing might afford museum-based learning?

Lizabeth: 3D printing will allow museums to reach a wider audience. Someone with no access to the physical museum might now have the opportunity to explore an object in the collection that is or is not currently on display. The 3D printed model allows people to hold the object and examine it in ways that are not even possible at the museum where the piece itself is displayed, but out of reach.

Learning and retention is enhanced through active experience. By holding and manipulating a 3D object students can gain insight into spatial and physical concepts that may not be clear or are difficult to either visualize or understand abstractly. While virtual simulations are becoming more and more prevalent, physical models are effective because they can be held and examined.

bre: I was spellbound when I first encountered the dinosaurs at the ANHM. I’ve sketched them on paper as drawings and I’ve photographed them. With my MakerBot I can’t wait to start making replicas to show my daughter. As museums start digitizing and sharing their collections on Thingiverse.com, a wonderful new time is upon us where folks who can’t come to the museum can download and use their MakerBot to create a replica and feel the things that are behind glass.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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