Thursday, July 10, 2014

3D Printing is Elementary

Since my school year finished at the end of June, I’ve been reflecting on my first year using a 3D printer with 4th and 5th grade students.  I must begin by first stating that I am in no way an expert in 3D design/printing. I’m simply an elementary tech coach/teacher who wanted my students to experience the world of 3D printing. I actually had no idea what I was doing at first but jumped in anyway because I wanted my students to experience the design process first hand.

Here’s what I learned about 3D printing with elementary students:

 1. Designing a unique product for 3D printing can be tricky for 10 and 11 year olds.
Students had to identify a problem and then create something using SketchUp to solve their problem. Ideas ranged from pencil holders to earbud organizers to knitting needle guides. Creativity wasn’t an issue with my students. What was more challenging was using the software to actually design their products. I observed many students having to simplify their designs or make changes based on their comfort level with the program. Expert users did emerge in each of my 8 classes and they were eager to help their classmates as needed. I must explore other 3D modeling programs that may be simpler to use or more appropriate for my elementary students. Maybe just spending more time exploring within SketchUp is needed to truly grasp the tools. In the very least, I will revisit the expectations for both grade levels and determine if adjustments should be made based on the student feedback I received.  

2. 3D Design and printing takes a long time from start to finish.
Because I only see my students biweekly, the challenge was getting each of them to complete a design and then print it within a timely manner. The first steps in the process, identifying a problem and brainstorming ideas, took one class period of 60 minutes to complete. The next step of actually designing the product using the 3D modeling software took another one or two class sessions to complete (60-120 minutes). I worked with approximately 180 students on this project and most of them didn’t actually see their own concept being printed. This is because their projects often took two to three hours to print! On a good day, I could print three or four designs. Sometimes, I was lucky if one finished before the end of the school day. Needless to say, I had to develop a system for printing (save files by student name/color choice, group colors together on SD cards, have multiple SD cards available for saving/printing) and even then I didn’t finish everyone’s prints. It didn’t help that the printer wasn’t working for several weeks. I truly felt I failed the students who didn’t leave with their tangible product. Next year, one of two things must happen: students’ creations will either have to fit a specific size criteria before printing or we start earlier in the school year to allow more time for printing.

3. The 3D design challenge is real-world application of skills at its best.
By combining problem solving with project based learning, students used logical, spatial, design thinking and math skills to develop their products. Students were engrossed in this project! From the moment I set up the 3D printer in the tech lab, students wanted to print something, anything. When I posed the design challenge to these fourth and fifth graders, every single one of them tried their very best to design a cool, yet useful, product. They manipulated shapes on a plane to get their design just right. They measured their designs using millimeters, centimeters, and/or inches using the virtual tape measure. They scaled their designs up or down. Some had to go back into the program and revisit the measurements if they had a “design flaw.” I was so impressed with their determination to get their designs just right and I think it was because it truly meant something to them.

4. One must not be afraid of the 3D printer.
I consider myself to be pretty tech savvy. I can figure out a program or online tool without reading directions. I’m like the kids and will search for a YouTube video to help guide me along. Inevitably, the 3D printer will have an issue and you will need to troubleshoot or take it apart to address it. The support team at MakerBot was awesome and helped me via Twitter, email and even over the phone. I can’t say enough about their patience with a newbie like me! I would absolutely recommend that you contact your 3D printer support team if/when you have an issue. These are the problems that arose during this project:

·      The filament jammed in the extruder. I had to take the extruder motor apart on several occasions and now can do it without asking for help from MakerBot Support. I know that the telltale “clicking” requires me to unload the filament and remove whatever is jammed in the motor. You can’t be leery about this task as it is very common and happened weekly during our design challenge.

·      Humidity caused havoc with filament. I work in a 100-year-old building in a lab with no air conditioning. The least bit of humidity in the air causes the filament to swell and not work through the extruder. After realizing this, I had to adjust my printing schedule around the weather. I’d get to school super early just to get a print started before the change in the tech lab environment stopped our production. Maybe winter and spring in New England is the best time for 3D printing!

·      The thermal barrier tube became blocked. This was a bit trickier to fix than the simple filament jam. After unsuccessfully trying to clear the blockage, I actually had to request a replacement part. This presented us with an unforeseen delay in printing.

·      Prints weren’t printing correctly on the build plate or were difficult to remove. Blue painters tape is a 3D printer’s best friend. The full sheets of tape are great but a roll of 2-inch tape works just fine too for covering the build plate and making prints easier to remove. I would also suggest getting a putty knife or similar tool for aiding in the removal of the prints. I learned rather quickly to set all designs to print with a raft as well.  It is super important that you take the time to level the build plate at least daily; maybe even after each print. All of these things will help with the final prints.

·      One of the plastic pulleys and belt wore out and needed to be replaced. This was very challenging to fix. Although MakerBot was great about sending me the X-axis belt, gantry bracket, idler pulley, dowel pin, and PTFE grease needed to fix the problem, it was hard to do! It turned into a two-person job with help from my building’s custodian. I can only suggest keeping up with regular maintenance in hopes of not running into this same problem. It took me several days to fix!

·      The printer made a dreadfully loud noise when the extruder went to its “home” position. This issue was apparently caused by a glitch with the stop end cable. Although not as difficult as the pulley and belt replacement, this fix scared me the most! I actually had to deal with the motherboard and feeding the cables through the machine and making sure everything was attached correctly. It doesn’t sound like much but it sure did intimidate me initially!

You may have a district computer technician who you can rely on when something needs to be fixed with your printer. I would suggest checking your district’s policy on this prior to getting a 3D printer. This way you’ll know if you’re on your own or not. If you are, like I was, don’t hesitate to reach out to the support team to help guide you through whatever issues arise.

5. The benefits of 3D printing far outweigh any potential problems!
There are so many awesome reasons to try 3D printing with your students. The levels of enthusiasm and engagement as well as the multitude of skills used by my students during the process were exciting to observe. The daily collaboration among students and the way they could view me as a learner too were results I hadn’t anticipated. The pure joy and pride on each student’s face as I took their picture with their completed design was priceless. My students became designers and makers and were super proud of themselves! At the conclusion of the project, I asked my students to complete a reflection survey on what they learned, suggestions to improve the project and general thoughts/comments. Here are several of their remarks:

“I liked how I could think of something in my head that only I could design and not stores and it could be mine and it was original.”

“I should've measured more carefully because my size was much different than I wanted.”

“I learned that not everything comes out perfect and to
 be more patient.”

“Keep calm! It can be hard, frustrating, and annoying at times but try your hardest. Don't rush! AND SAVE, SAVE, SAVE!!!!!”

“It was a challenge for me, but I took it as a learning process. I am thrilled to see how my design turns out.”

“I liked that we were making stuff to solve problems.”

“I learned just how important measurements are.”

“I love printing in 3D. I love this because, all of things that live in your imagination can finally come to life in ways we thought that they never could.”

The last quote pretty much sums up why everyone should try to get a 3D printer for his or her school! Feel free to leave a comment, question or contact me directly at if I can help you on your quest with 3D printing.

This post was originally written as a guest blog submission on Fractus Learning

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Learning to 3D Print

I work with about 180 fourth and fifth grade students on a bi-weekly basis in the computer lab. Our sessions together are one hour each and since January, we've been making our way through all elements of the design process. Each student has been working through the 3D Design Challenge at his/her own pace. You can take a look at my earlier post 3D Printing in the Tech Lab to learn about the beginning steps. In this post, I'd like to focus on the final steps that must be completed in order to actually print.

Once students have completed their 3D planning sheet, they launch SketchUp which is installed on our lab computers. Students have a basic knowledge of how SketchUp works as they spent several class sessions working through the program/tools earlier in this process. Students are required to use their planning sheet sketch as a guide to create their 3D model. Any measurements needed were gathered prior to launching SketchUp. Depending upon the complexity of the invention, students may need more than one class session to complete the actual design. After two working sessions in SketchUp, approximately 40 students declared they were finished. These students were directed to save their projects to a network folder so I could access their files. At this point, the students' work is done and my work begins.

I access student files on the network and copy them to my computer lab's Google Drive account. This allows me to then download the files to my laptop. I have the most recent version of SketchUp on my computer with the STL extension which is needed to convert the files for printing. You can learn more about the needed extension by visiting the SketchUp website.  I open each student's file, check to see they've gotten rid of the person and any extraneous objects and then export the file in STL format.

You need to choose the unit of measurement to export and I've been choosing millimeters  as this seems to be most compatible with MakerWare. 

A new dialog box appears and this is where I choose stl as the entities to export.

I save the file on my desktop and then launch MakerWare. I click "ADD" and then find the student file to open. The object should be on the platform and, if not, the software will prompt one to "Move to platform?" which is helpful. In MakerWare, actual print size of student designs is obvious so this is
when you may want to scale up or down. You could even add additional objects to the platform to print multiple jobs at once.

Once ready to print, just click on "MAKE" which brings up a new window. You can connect the Makerbot printer directly to your computer and choose "Make It Now" or choose the "Export to a
File" option. I like the second choice as I've been exporting to SD cards and printing from there. My computer isn't tethered to the printer and I can continue using it.

I suggest saving the file as the student's name and color choice directly to the SD card. I look at student color choices and save files of the same color to the same SD card. This saves time rather than having to change the filament between student prints. Having multiple SD cards works great too. I believe the default format setting is X3G.

Let me say that printing takes a long time. I haven't been keeping track but my best estimate is that each student project takes over 90 minutes to print. Some are less and some take longer but on a good day I can print three or four designs. At this rate, it will take me 45 school days to print all of my students' designs-YIKES! I received red, white, blue and clear filament from MakerBot and Donor's Choose with my printer bundle. I purchased pink, purple, yellow, orange, light blue, and silver from Zeni Kinetic primarily due to their great Spools for Schools program. I see no difference in the final prints from either company's PLA.

Over the past week, the MakerBot has been working all day, everyday and I haven't had any issues. I did level the build platform after taking off a print that was a bit stuck but that's it. I have left the printer on overnight to print larger designs that would just take too long to complete during the school day. As prints have finished, I find the student inventor and take a picture of him/her with their creation for the "We Are Makers!" bulletin board outside the lab. All of the finished prints are in a display case outside the main office for the larger school community to view. Students will take their inventions home after completing a reflection form on the whole process.

Certainly we've had some great success with student designs in SketchUp. We've also had some "design flaws" which cause major printing issues. If a problem occurred during printing, the student is required to revisit and modify their original design. I'm more than happy to print again if a student took the time to "fix" the design issues. I expect to write another 3D printing post once everyone has completely finished the project and reflected on their learning.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Twitter Thank You Notes

Let me begin by saying I'm no expert on Twitter. I'm an educator who has come to see the amazing value Twitter adds to my professional life each and every day. I set up an account some years ago and neglected it as many newbies do. I would send out some tweets if I was at a conference and found something particularly interesting but I wasn't using Twitter daily. Then I attended my first Edcamp in Boston in 2012 and had an Aha moment: Many of the people sharing ideas and collaborating here actually first connected on Twitter. I think it was Dan Callahan who said that Twitter is more like a stream of water that is constantly flowing. That made sense to me and I finally got it. You can visit Twitter any time of day and get something great from the "stream" of tweets that continuously flow from whatever PLN you've created. And that's the key: it's all about the PEOPLE on Twitter. It's who you choose to follow that matters and impacts your personal stream. It's about the people you choose to interact with that makes Twitter powerful. It is being used by educators all across the globe to help them be better teachers. To help them do better for their students. Twitter helps teachers. Twitter helps me.

With that in mind, I've made some great connections over the past year and want to share my own Jimmy Fallon-esque "Twitter Thank You Notes" with more meaning than humor. Here goes:

Thank you, Twitter, for helping me see there's a world of professionals who are interested in the same things I value in education.

Thank you, Twitter, for teaching me that I can reach a broader audience than just my followers by using a #.

Thank you, Twitter, for connecting me with @mr_avery to whom I owe my MakerBot Replicator 2.

Thank you, Twitter, for motivating me to share the good things happening in my school.

Thank you, Twitter, for connecting me to the first person willing to do a Mystery Skype with my class @suzanneyoder27.

Thank you, Twitter, for the # that allows me to follow amazing conferences and conversations.

Thank you, Twitter, for connecting me with @kjarrett who invited me to share my Minecraft story during his presentations. Wow. Honored.

Thank you, Twitter, for inspiring me to be a better teacher. When I see what others are doing and sharing with their students, I want to do more.  I can do more.

Thank you, Twitter, for teaching me something new today.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Elementary Minecraft-Part 2

After seeing all of the third grade students for the first Minecraft lesson, I thought it best to reflect on the sessions as I try to keep up with the progress of this project. 

I introduced the idea of the project first by stating that students would be put into three groups representing the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Each group would be “creating” a village, colony or town representative of how their assigned group would have lived in our state. This ties to the 3rd grade Social Studies curriculum quite nicely. I then explained that we would be doing this by using Minecraft. Here’s one class’ response:


Obviously, the excitement level of the students is high. They love Minecraft! Even those students who haven’t used the game before are eager to try it out. I decided to try to even the groups based not on academic ability level but on Minecraft experience levels. I had kids decide whether they were a newbie (never played the game or extremely limited knowledge), an intermediate (has played on the computer, ipod/ipad, or gaming system), or an expert (proficient in all things minecraft-willing to help anyone who needs help including me!). I then placed students into one of the three groups accordingly.There are eight students in each group and they were encouraged to sit near each other in the lab. I actually tried to seat the newbies between experts/intermediates so to have a double line of support.

I explained that we would be working in creative mode only (no zombies, spiders, creepers or other villains). I asked if we needed any rules before we got started. Hands shot up. Most students agreed on: “No Griefing. No one should destroy something if they didn’t make it.” We talked about why this was important: we are sharing the world with the other 3rd grade classes. If one of the other classes destroyed their creations they’d be mad, sad, disappointed. We also spoke about including everyone in the project. Coming up with ideas and building/creating are expectations for all students. Students need to collaborate and create when using Minecraft.

Goals for the first session were to have students login to our school based server and find their class/group plot. I obviously wanted to see if the students lived up to their designated experience labels too. Students logged in with their name (real names allowed as our server is only for my class) followed by Pg for Pilgrim, W for Wampanoag or Pn for Puritan. I thought this might be helpful to identify groups within the game as most avatars have the same skins or appearance once inside the game. After logging in, students were assigned to find their class plot which was an area fenced off with a class sign. Special thanks to my two 5th grade tech helpers for helping to divide up the world!  

When everyone logged in at once, there was crazy excitement in the lab! Avatars were running around in Minecraft trying to locate their plots and their group members. Some students definitely overestimated their skill levels and groups may need to be shuffled accordingly. I’ll wait for now before making any changes. Some groups began building right away while others were in the planning phase. We shall see what comes of the different strategies. I just wanted everyone to get into the game and see the Biome they would be creating in so they could start thinking about what they wanted to create/develop. I’m sure I will give them time during the next class to get organized and plan before heading back into the server.

We only had a few minutes to explore in the Minecraft world so I imagine our next session will be more productive. I did do a brief overview of how to move within the world (which controls to use) and how to access the inventory. I asked students to share important things that others should know (like building/breaking) and several did. I envision more peer to peer tutoring in the weeks and months ahead.

I'll end this post with this: during lunch one day, I walked through the cafeteria and was stopped by a 3rd grade student. He asked, "Mrs. Winsper, if I'm in the Pilgrim Minecraft group, can we make the Mayflower?" Oh. My. Awesomeness. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

3D Printing in the Tech Lab

I was very fortunate to receive a MakerBot Replicator 2-3D Printer for my lab through the generosity of and the MakerBot company. This amazing tool began inspiring students and staff alike when it arrived in early December. I envisioned my students becoming creators with this machine yet there was so much I had to learn!

We began printing things found on the SD card that came with the MakerBot and then moved ahead to downloading items from Thingiverse to print. Very cool!! There are some really talented people in the world! I spoke with my students about how the items were printing in layers. They watched in amazement as the printer hummed along.

In January, I began printing my own creation of an elephant which was used in an introductory lesson on SketchUp. A colleague found this tutorial which gave us the idea to start with an elephant which was simple enough to design for 4th and 5th grade students. There were several printed versions of "Ellie" before I got mine just right. I always make sure to point out the printing successes and failures to the students because they will need to consider printing limitations as they begin their own designs.

I introduced the 3D Design Challenge as a project where each student would ultimately print a new creation/invention they developed. I really want them to be creative thinkers who imagine something, design it and actually produce it. After watching Kid President's How to Be an Inventor, my students began to complete the 3D Planning Sheet. I encouraged collaboration among the students to brainstorm problems they wanted to solve. I want this project to be relevant to them so they are choosing their problems: tangled headphones, water bottle falls off my desk, pencil box is a mess, rainbow loom needs to be neater-you get the idea.
Steps 1 and 2 of the planning sheet took an entire class session to complete and we've started steps 3 and 4 this week. One thing I've noticed so far is that the attention to detail is high! Students want to get their plans right!

After one fourth grade class, many students decided they needed to take measurements before starting to actually design in SketchUp! They realize they will need to measure something to get their design right. How awesome is that?! Real world math application-awesomeness! LOVE IT! I can't wait to see how and what my students develop in this process! I look forward to sharing our learning in the weeks ahead!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Elementary Minecraft-Part 1

This year, I've decided to try to incorporate Minecraft within the computer lab classes rather than having a separate club(s) as I did last year. There were several reasons for this:

1) There was a HUGE response to the before school clubs last year. So many students were interested in grades 3-5 that I ended up offering 4 different clubs before school let out in June! By including Minecraft within our regularly scheduled lab sessions, I know that many more students will have the opportunity to try out, learn and explore with Minecraft.

2) Scheduling is a tricky thing and I am unable to run Minecraft clubs before or after school this year. I chose to run the clubs last year because I was interested in seeing what the students could do within the program. Now that I have a good idea of the possibilities with Minecraft, I'm confident the students will collaborate to create great stuff during our scheduled classes!

3) I've decided to focus on using Minecraft strictly with 3rd grade students. My thoughts on this are because these students didn't have the opportunity to join the clubs last spring (we only opened them to grades 3-5), they should have the chance to try out Minecraft at school. I also want to attempt to tie Minecraft to the 3rd grade Social Studies curriculum. The current 4th and 5th graders will not have the opportunity to use Mincecraft in the computer lab setting this year. Instead, they will be focusing their efforts on the 3D design challenge using the MakerBot 3D printer. Third grade students will not be using the 3D printer so there is some trade-off in my planning.

Starting the first week of March, Minecraft will begin to be introduced during computer lab sessions. Stay tuned to see where this adventure takes us!