3-D Printing Initiative in U.S. School Attracts International Visitors
Initiative emphasizes science, engineering
With a Japanese television news crew keeping close watch on a recent school day, Buford Middle School science students crafted their own sound speakers from plastic and paper. They did it using three-dimensional printers and computer-design software to produce plastic supports, paper cones, and other pieces.
"I think it's interesting that they're including 3-D computerization and printing into the education program at this level and what it means for the future of job training in the U.S.," said Takashi Yanagisawa, a correspondent with Japan's Nippon Television. "This is what President Obama talked of in his State of the Union address, about bringing technology into schools for job training."
Mr. Yanagisawa and his colleagues are producing a segment for Japanese TV that will feature the class at the Virginia school as an example of efforts in the United States to bring more technology into schools.
"We're in on the ground floor of bringing manufacturing and technology into the classrooms," said James M. Henderson, the assistant superintendent for administration services for the 3,900-student Charlottesville city school system. "We're participating with Piedmont Virginia Community College and the University of Virginia, and we hope to make this a 7th-through-12th-grade program. This is the start."
The start is the result of a $300,000 state grant to create a "laboratory school for advanced manufacturing technologies."
The school is a collaboration between the University of Virginia and its home city to teach science and engineering in public schools and prepare students for high-tech jobs. It also provides future teachers experience combining engineering concepts and traditional science education.
University officials hope the concept is eventually picked up by schools across the country.
Eventually, advanced manufacturing-technology programs will be added at Jack Jouett Middle School in neighboring Albemarle County and in Charlottesville and Albemarle County high schools. The sites each will be linked to one another and the University of Virginia via videoconferencing.
Next school year, the lab school plans to offer courses to 500 or so 8th graders at the two middle schools. Each school year, a new grade level is scheduled to be added. High school students eventually would get the chance to study advanced manufacturing through double-enrollment with Piedmont Virginia Community College.
The price of 3-D printers has dropped sharply over the past two years, with machines that once cost $20,000 now at $1,000 or cheaper, educators said. Although they don't expect printers to replace current factories, the engineering and technology behind the software and the devices will change how goods are made in the near future.
School officials say the classes will give students a boost in technological and manufacturing training and, therefore, a leg up in the job market upon graduation.
"We are committed to educating our young people and making sure their education is not just enough to pass tests but equip them with skills that will help them after graduation in the job market and help them contribute to the economy," said Rosa S. Atkins, the Charlottesville superintendent.
Students also get hands-on science and mathematic instruction. Rather than learning math and science as abstract concepts, students can learn about them in action.
"Having a 3-D printer doesn't do you much good if you don't have the knowledge and ability to design the programs or the product and make it work for you," said Glen Bull, a professor of instructional technology and co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia.
At one table on a recent school day, 8th graders Ben Sties, Ben Ralston, and Nick Givens used University of Virginia-created software to design and print in plastic the support structure for a paper cone "woofer," a speaker that enhances the bass sound in a stereo system.
"We did this first semester, and the first time we did it, we didn't have all of the equipment," Mr. Sties said. "We got to do some of it and we understood it, but it didn't work nearly as well."
The first-semester speaker didn't woof, they said. Neither did it tweet. It simply vibrated.
"Making it with the 3-D printer makes a big difference. Now we can make a speaker that really makes sound," said Mr. Givens.
The 3-D-printing equipment, software, and program guidelines come from the minds of University of Virginia professors in the school of education and the school of engineering and applied science. The goal, Mr. Bull said, is to develop coursework that can be replicated in schools nationwide.
"You have a group of professors and students in the rapid-prototyping lab [at the university] who are working on the curriculum and methodology with the idea of finding out how it can be taught and work well in most classroom environments," Mr. Bull said.
And the concept might scale up beyond the United States.
"It's something we probably should consider in our country as well," said Mr. Yanagisawa, the Japanese correspondent.
Vol. 32, Issue 27, Pages 8-9