Adventures in Digital Fabrication: My Talk at the MakerBot Store

Last month, I presented at the MakerBot store in New York City, a talk that might as well have been called “My adventures in digital fabrication at the American Museum of Natural History.” As the first consumer 3D printing store, it is hard to enter off the street without feeling like you’ve passed into the future. Or someone is punking you, about to jump out and say, “You really thought this was all real?!!”

But of course it is. And people came from all over to get a glimpse: A nine-year-old boy and his equally 3D-print loving dad; a sizable crew from the Brookhaven Laboratory on Long Island; a Chilean couple on vacation who run a digital fabrication company that works with scientists at their local natural history museum; and a guy with a chair. Okay, not just any chair, but a digitally fabricated chair. Not that the store didn’t provide chairs but he had just happened to buy it earlier in the day at a furniture show at the Jacob Javits center. A few others rounded out the small but diverse group that filled the tiny store (little larger than a Chinatown book store).

I opened by teasing an announcement that would come at the end of the talk, about the first public educational digital fabrication program at the Museum (scroll down to the end of the post for more), and thanking them for providing me with the opportunity to share lessons learned since the Museum purchased its 3D printer earlier this year.

First, I wanted to provide some context by offering highlights of the Museum’s innovations in using technology for education. For example in the 1880s, Albert Bickmore, a founder of the Museum, marveled and enlightened thousands of educators with new fangled “lantern slides.” And in 1952 the Museum partnered with CBS to produce, in the new medium of television, a show called Adventure, which took viewers behind the scenes and into the field. These efforts are detailed in a publication called “The First 125 Years,” produced in the early 1990s, which documents the Museum’s history. I was particularly struck by the concluding sentence:

The Museum is actively exploring the use of new technologies to extend its educational reach beyond its walls and enable it to play a leading role in enhancing science literacies throughout the nation.

Were this written a few years later, these “new technologies” would most assuredly have been referencing the web. But what did this sentence refer to? After a little research, I discovered some answers in the annual report from that year, which highlighted “new distance learning technologies such as video conferencing.”

I then explained to the audience gathered at the MakerBot store that although this was written almost 25 years ago, I was not there to talk about what the  Museum has done since–from websites like OLogy, mobile apps, or programs where youth use virtual worlds to learn about Neanderthals or Cretaceous sea life. Instead I wanted to look forward, to the next 150 years.

And then I went into Poop Freezes and the unintentionally humorous emails required to gather 3D printing supplies (they say the freezer is ideal for prying loose a sticky 3D print). And how everyone is amazed the first time they hold a digitally fabricated item, or actually get to watch it print.

I then provided anecdotes to shed some light about the questions digital fabrication is forcing us to ask and how we are learning to use 3D printing for informal science learning.

I passed around the print we made of a 1918 model of a Camarasaurus from the Museum’s library and asked, “What would it mean for a library to digitally share not just texts but 3D printable objects?”

I then explained the process of creating a 3D model of a bust from the new sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt in the Museum’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.

Finally, I described working in the Museum’s Big Bone room–a collections area for large fossils–to experiment with digitally fabricating a dinosaur bone (and passed around some examples) as we explored whether or not it was feasible to train youth to use the tools of digital fabrication to develop science skills and knowledge. And then I made the big announcement with the answer:

This July, the Museum’s Youth Initiatives group will offer Capturing Dinosaurs: Reconstructing Extinct Species Through Digital Fabrication. Designed for high school students, this program will ask youth to imagine themselves as globe-trotting paleontologists on an exciting dig, uncovering a previously unknown cache of dinosaur fossils. How will they identify what species they found, or how they fit together? In this program, youth go behind-the-scenes into the Museum’s Big Bone room and use the latest 3D capturing, modeling, and printing technology to build their own dinosaur model. (The audience’s response made it clear they were jealous it was only for youth!) Registration is just about to close but full fee waivers are still available.

At the end I thanked everyone for coming and the amazing folks at MakerBot not only for the evening but for all of the support they have provided that so that we could learn enough to offer a program like Capturing Dinosaurs. And I also thanked Alexis, who was not only listening to my presentation but drawing a visualization as well! With her permission, I am delighted to be able to share it below:

About Barry

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