3D-Printers in a pedagogical setting: Questions and suggestions

Hi, Daniel!

You and I had a few conversations on 3D-printers in a pedagogical setting where teachers and smaller children are a central part of the activities.  You as the leader of Fablab Berlin and I as a teacher and researcher in different kinds of makerspaces wanted to know more about this could be done. You might not be the only reader of this blogpost, so I put in a few links on stuff you already know a lot about, but bear with me.

The question is important to you and me as we both are part of an ongoing EU-project, where the central research question is about how makerspaces can unfold and enhance digital literacy and creativity for smaller children (https://makeyproject.wordpress.com/). In short the project is named MakEY. I like that. What is the key to solve the question? In this case on 3D-printers.

The question?

Well, here are some questions and suggestions that might lead to some new pedagogical experiments on the matter. There are more thoughts than answers in this blogpost, but maybe they can be useful for you. One of the problems, I over the last few years heard mentioned from pedagogues and teachers, is the fact that it simply takes a very long time to print. Depending on the size and complexity of the object to print it goes from hours to days. What to do all of a sudden in a school, a kindergarten or a after school club, while the hardware is printing?

As you know, I was at the Fablab Berlin for a month follow the interesting activities there! I enjoyed being in your different labs, listening, talking to those who came and the staff, interviewing and filming – and of course trying the 3D-printers myself. For those who don’t know Fablab Berlin they can have a look at the website (https://fablab.berlin/en/).  During my stay I made this short video “Cuts & Prints” (https://youtu.be/Wxi7-D4D8bU) about some of the tools and processes and the longer video “What can a fablab community become?” (https://youtu.be/F1cZGtSsdJw), where I Interviewed your young lab managers on possible futures of Fablabs.

Intertwined challenges

There are many ways one could go to solve this challenge. One is to ask if the printing at all need to be a problem? Is it a problem because one thinks in terms of linearity? That is that all the participants at all times do have do the same thing at the same moment in time in the pedagogical process. What would happen if the pedagogical process was organized differently? Another question that intertwines with how the process should be organized is if the software and hardware is too difficult to use for small children? Again this question could be asked differently, because how is the teacher or lab manager actually involved in the process? What are their functions? What if the children did not need to be able to use all elements themselves in the process?  A third question would then be to ask about what is going on around the 3D-printer itself? What does the whole process include of other technologies, tools and spaces – analogue as digital? How about the use of physical space inside or outside?

The process

So I started to look at the process the 3D-printer is part of. You know this process obviously, but I didn´t.  One way to understand would be like this: First one looks for files to print on the internet. I was pointed towards Thingiverse (https://www.thingiverse.com/) as a place where you could find files to download. Then one could either edit it in a programme like Tinkercad (https://www.tinkercad.com/) or make it ready for print in a slicer software like Craftware (https://craftunique.com/craftware/). After this one could start printing and use it. The process seems linear and going from A to Z in irreversible process, but it obviously isn´t. If the print is not as it is supposed to be or can´t be used as intented, one can go back to the slicer software and adjust or go even further back to Tinkercad to change the design or even back to Thingiverse to find another design to use. Or one can start in Tinkercad and here continuously develop and change the prototype one wants to print later or opload it on Thingiverse for others to use. So the process can be seen non-linear or at least having the possibility to let each step in the process as one where you can go back and forth.

Each step can even be seen as an independent process in itself. To look for something on Thingiverse can be a process where one actually tinkers around to be inspired or get new ideas for what to do. Tinkercad is a programme with a lot of possibilities, so that the design of an object can in itself take a lot of time. Even the slicer software can be used for adaptions of the object found on Thingiverse. In a sense each step can be seen as having its own tools, methods, materials and investigations, that can have a large influence on the steps before and later.

And the steps do not need to come in a certain order to work. One can jump around in the process and spend more or less time each place. And here you probably noticed that I suddenly changed the word from steps to places to emphasize that each place might a place where one could jump more freely around in the process. More about that in a moment. I haven´t bypassed the crucial moment of waiting yet.

The technology

One could go through the different software and hardware and examine what elements children would be able to do themselves and what they would need help to do. So each software and hardware should be broken down in single and simple functions to find where the children could take over. The same goes for the process. The teacher or the lab manager would then be an assistant demonstrating or even taking over functions for the children involved, guiding them through a process knowing one could jump back and forth in it.  Some of the functions could even be replaced be others. One example would be to ask the children to draw a drawing that the lab manager or the teacher then transforms into a 3d-model in Tinkercad. Another solution would be to look for technical solutions where some functions or processes are made more easily accessible for children or others who are not familiar with 3D-printers. These new solutions would also have to be tested before one could know how they work. Yet another solution would be to look for new developments where completely new and maybe more accessible possibilities might show themselves.

The combination

So I continued on my attempt to bypass the printer or should I say to make the 3D-printer part of a process and not the whole process in itself. What if the creative process was not finished when printing? What if each and every bit of software and hardware was a place where one could jump to an infinity of other places? I added the elements from the pedagogical traditions in Denmark where each kindergarten and afterschool club can be seen as a makerspace in the sense that children here do have access to lot of tools & materials embedded in creative processes. They on an almost everyday basis play and experiment with anything from scissors to pencils and they in some cases have the possibility to meet and tell narratives, do drama and use digital media. They actually spend quite some time on the floor moving around playing and outside on the playground. Cultural research and pedagogy influenced by children´s play culture also hold an important position (https://youtu.be/NneOKwS1C5k). So in this context it would be a possibility to do some physical activities combined with other kind of activities. For instance build robots, print robots, programming robots, talk about robots, film robots, playing with robots and finally move around pretending to be robots – all to get a better idea what robots can be and how they could be used and what for.

The Many Figures Grid

As the 3D-printer is faster when printing smaller figures, and as I actually wanted to use the available technology at the Fablab, I used that as my departing point. I wanted to work with small figures – 5-10 cm tall-ones one could play with and tell stories with. To do so I started sketching out a pedagogy, that I later named The Many Figures Grid. You can see it to the left.

The Many Figures Grid

So after the printing process one could continue like this: One could cut the figures coming out of the printer. Paint them, glue them together in new figures, tell stories with them moving them around on the floor, take pictures of them and upload them, make small videos including narratives or demonstrations on how to make them. One could use software like Bookcreator (https://bookcreator.com/) to digitally make stories on a tablet or smart phone. They could be exhibited on-line or in the same room, where they are produced or both. One could also jump from making these small figures to play them one self like in drama and theatre. There will probably turn up questions on both technologies and narratives in these processes. If you then include searching for figures, inspiration for figures and scanning the ones, you already have altered in the process then you have in a sense completed this process in a grid.

The model in this text is an attempt to draw what I think. The linear process still exists in this grid as a possibility. You can in principle go all the way from searching to printing and on to scanning if you want to. I have just made the starting point the ending point. But you do also have another possibility. One can in principle jump from one place to another. If for instance you have glued on figure you can go straight to scanning or you can film it right away. If you are editing or slicing you might go somewhere and search for new inspiration or you might choose to leave the figure in the software for some time because you need to play with some of the others to find out what to do with the one in the software. In this case you don’t bring the figure it self but you bring yourself in a new situation, it is the child or the teacher or the lab manager, who are the ones who connect the possibilities or the places.

Every single possibility becomes a place where one can enter, do something, alter something and leave for the next place with or without an actual figure in the hand. It is non-linear grid where the possibility to produce in a more linear way still exists. Every moment is a prototype and an immediate expression in itself. That is why the arrows point both ways in the model. The idea is to use existing possibilities to move around between the different places or invent new pathways and new places. That is why I included a question mark in the model just to emphasize this.

The experimenting community

The very first figure still requires time to be done and there you have the time dimension running still. But here you buy or pre-print some and the demonstrates the cutting, gluing and filming and in the run of some time there will be several figures in several phases undergoing transformations into something else. If some figures are available from the start, then they can all be part of a transformation process not matter where they start in the grid so to speak. Even if one for instance does not physically change a figure into something else one can still try to find how it should be used in ways that might surprise even the one that investigates it.

The 3D-printer is part of the process but no longer the whole process. The possibilities in the process around the 3D-printer to go forth and back are enhanced. The actual space around the 3D-printer and the tools and materials are changing though. If one wants the children to have some space to move around, do drama and play as part of the grid, then you need space for it inside or outside the building. But as far as I could see it would be rather easy to make an open space inside the fablab and include the outside space in some of the activities. And the 3D-printer might actually become more important in the pedagogical process than it otherwise would have been.

As I see it, teachers, lab managers and others can be part of the same process as the children. That is that both parties ask themselves questions on themes and technologies and that both parties want to know more and be able to do more. So persons around the children in the pedagogical space are also curious, experimenting, playing and looking for possible answers in processes where no answer is given in advance. Well, if nothing else that should apply for anybody working in a fablab or a makerspace, so if one let the lab managers meet children, these lab managers should have a huge advantage in organizing and taking part in fablabs where you have to be innovative and develop in communities.

When everybody is part of the process, I actually call it The Experimenting Communityand when all materials, all technologies, all narratives and all forms of digital media is included in the processes, then I call it The Open Lab (https://youtu.be/YdBekYIC6Hk or https://makeyproject.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/what-is-an-open-laboratory-inspiration-for-emerging-makerspaces/). The last of the two links sets the open lab in a pedagogical frame.

Next Practise Labs

A fablab or a makerspace might change its look or the number of activities radically over time because of this. The 3D-printer and the digital camera and the pencil and stage exist simultaneously in an open lab. But shouldn´t a fablab or makerspace be a space where the newest ideas are invented and new technologies used, altered or combined with other technologies? I even suggest that such a place could be called Next Practice Labs, laboratories for the next praxis (https://youtu.be/vyzwl8naSgU). We meet not only to repeat and use existing tools and materials, but also to construct a new practice together that can become new everyday in the fablab or makerspace until something new is tested out (https://youtu.be/Q_qi8nqsWlw).

One could say that the Many Figures Grid is confusing in all its range of possible possibilities, but there is this one important catch when thinking of the grid as a Next Practise Lab. We also enter such a lab with an existing practice that actually makes sense in one’s everyday life or pedagogical framework and changing it partly or wholly in a lab can be playfull and lively. There is no pressure in the lab, there is curiosity and an understanding of culture as always being in a constant process of repeat and change like it is shown so clearly in for instance children´s play culture. The grid is ours to use, not anybody else. The grid is ours to walk, not anybody else. The change is ours to do, if wanted.

Well, that turned to be a rather long blogpost, more like a mail or even an old-fashioned letter becoming a hypertext. Maybe an essay. The Many Figures Grid is the result for the moment. When I read my own text I do see that there is a lot more to talk about, but I hope you find some of it useful.

Best

Klaus

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