First, they took out the blackboards and put in whiteboards. Now simple drawings have been replaced by 3D printed objects that students can physically hold.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. An object is made by laying down successive layers of plastic until the object is created. It allows nearly anything drawn on a computer to become a real, tangible object.
Michael Wesolowski, technology teacher for grades six, seven and eight at Christ the King School in Snyder, shows a volcano made by one of his students. The outside is brown, with the inside lava dome and lave tubes, a fiery red. Other objects made include simple Christmas ornaments and a widget with working gears.
"If you can think it, if you can design it on a computer, if it is in your head, we can create it," Wesolowski said.
The school's 3D printer is basically a computer waiting for instructions. So, first the students create a file using Tinkercad, a free online collection of software tools. The program has stock objects such as stone walls and thatched roofs that students can place to build a manger. These can be sized and manipulated to create a unique design. There is also a drawing tool to allow students to come up with a design from scratch.
"Once the students design and object we slice it. Slicing gives the 3D printer the instructions," explained Wesolowski.
Once it has the instructions, the machine extrudes the filament, which looks like shoestring licorice and comes in every color. It's made of sugar-based polylactic acid or PLA plastic. When it melts, it has no noxious plasticy smell. The PLA moves through an extruder where it is pulled through the machine. A heating element melts the plastic at 215 degrees Celsius and follows the computer's instructions on when to spit out the little bits of molten plastic onto the layer below. It builds from the bottom up, adding layer on top of layer of plastic filament. It does one full layer, then the Z axis will go up, sometimes as little as 1/10th of a millimeter. Then put another layer on it.
"One project may have 1,000 layers and the computer needs to know what's happening at every level," Wesolowski said.
Although invented in 1983, 3D printing came into popularity just a decade ago.
"This is the technology all of these students are going to be using when they are out in the real world," said Wesolowski. "If they're architects, they're going to be 3D printing models of buildings. If they go into aerospace; Boeing, Calspan, CUBRC use these all the time. (Students) need to know what 3D modeling is all about. All the design is on computer. No one is doing clay sculptures anymore. They're modeling on the computer and then bringing it to life. For them to be able to touch something they created is a huge plus. And they are also seeing the machine in action."
The printer is not contained in a box the way a copy machine is, it's more like a table saw, where the gears and belts are visible showing that this moves that making this happen, so the students can see how it works.
When the automatic filament detector started to fail. The machine made its own shim, 1/10th of a millimeter. "This machine actually printed its own repair part to fix itself."
Beyond tech class, the machine can be used for art and even health. The life-sized heart that they printed explains more about the circulatory system than a photo. Kids also learn how to save and transfer files.
"Sixth-graders, they've been using the mouse a lot, but 'Oh, I have to copy and paste? What are the functions for that? How do I do it? What is the computer really doing?' So, they're learning much more than just designing. They're learning all about getting files where they need to be," Wesolowski said.
"It's very fun," said Luke Foster, a sixth-grader. What he likes best is "Just being able to do what you want with it. It's not like set - you have to do this. You can customize it. And if you don't want to design it yourself, you can look up all the other stuff. It's easy to use."
Christ the King's principal, Samuel Zalacca, considers the 3D printer, a "fantastic tool for learning."
"It is obviously much better than just looking at a picture of an object especially when the students are involved in the actual design from the conception of it on the computer to actually holding the finished product," he said.