kjellwr4 - Posted on 14 March 2010

Personal manufacturing, digital fabrication, and 3D printing are terms and processes that aren't foreign to Fab@Home users. With the publication of Chris Anderson's Wired article entitled In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits, a wider swathe of the general public now has these less-than-palpable ideas in their vocabulary. Yet, if Anderson is correct with his assertion that society is at the precipice of a "democratization of manufacturing," then I imagine that 3D printing and personal manufacturing will not only be semantically accessible and commonplace but directly actionable.

For a number of elementary students in Charlottesville, VA, personal manufacturing and digital fabrication are already entrenched facets of school and learning.

My work at the University of Virginia's Center for Technology and Teacher Education focuses on how personal manufacturing can support, extend, and transform elementary students' understanding of mathematics. More specifically, geometry and spatial visualization. Led by Dr. Glen Bull, we are currently using 2D fabricators (Graphtec's Silhouette) and kid-friendly CAD software (Aspex's FabLab ModelMaker) with a pilot group of local elementary schools.

Students aren't learning about personal manufacturing or assisting an expert; they are designing and fabricating objects as active users in the experience. The low entry-level skills needed to create 3D designs in FabLab ModelMaker coupled with the inexpensive 2D fabricators, Silhouette, remove the barriers for implementation and heighten the learning opportunities.

Make no mistake: The students are learning, and the teachers are uncovering previously unseen misconceptions in students' thinking about geometry, shapes, and visualization.

Earlier this month, Jeff Lipton and Hod Lipson traveled to Charlottesville for the unveiling of the Children's Engineering Center (CEC) at the Curry School of Education. The CEC features a number of fabrication stations equipped with computers, scanners, design software, and 2D fabricators. The cornerstone machine in this new facility is a Fab@Home 3D printer.

The Fab@Home 3D printer will play a prominent role in not only the pilot group of elementary classrooms but also undergraduate and graduate students preparing to enter K-12 schools. The Curry School is planning on embedding engineering and digital fabrication within elementary math methods courses, and software like FabLab Model Maker as well as the Fab@Home unit make creating physical models and manipulatives both accessible and easy.