3D printers are becoming so advanced and widespread that the auto industry uses them to make rare car parts. Some construction firms use them to pour concrete.
Also, more schools are teaching teenage students how to use smaller versions of the printers — and teachers in some school districts are learning how to teach even young children how to use them.
Take, for example, the Port Washington-Saukville School District. This week, the district played host to a summer instruction session for teachers to learn about new technology.
In a classroom at Port Washington High School, about a dozen elementary school teachers sat in small groups at tables. They were using pens about the size of a glue gun. Only these pens were slowly squirting out a thread, or filament, of flexible plastic, and the teachers were making tiny parts for model-size self-driving cars.
Naomi Harm, of the non-profit International Society for Technology in Education, and founder and CEO of the firm, Innovative Educator Consulting, talked to the teachers about design options.
"Because if I'm a consumer, and I want to buy a car, I'm looking at those standards, right? The color. I'm looking at the build. I'm looking at the structure of the car. I'm looking at the safety features, too,” Harm said.
The teachers eventually bonded the parts together with another filament.
The pens squirting plastic were a simpler version of what a 3D printer typically does. Once a design is programmed into the machine, a filament comes off a spool, is heated and goes through a nozzle, then onto a flat surface called a print bed. The motion repeats numerous times, or is altered slightly until layer by layer, the item is printed in three dimensions.
One of the people helping make a little car was Maria Garbisch, who teaches 3rd grade at Dunwoody Elementary in Port Washington. She says it's good that instructors are learning more about 3D printers, to better inform, even 8-and 9-year olds who are ready to learn.
"Definitely, definitely, because at that point, they're still determining what they want to do, and they can take that further, as they're going on with their education. If that's of interest to them, they can continue with that," Garbisch said.
She says the kids often have creative ideas on what to make in 3D. "One group came up with the idea to be able to design a 3D logo using the pens, and they would have it on their backpack, and that another child or their parent would have it. So, that you knew they were going with the right person, instead of having like a code name or something," Garbisch said.
The lesson for elementary school teachers comes as many school districts already offer middle and high school students classes with actual 3D printers. At Port Washington High School, there are five 3D printers in the computer lab run by technology education teacher Ryan Volke. He says his students make more complex items.
"It could be a bracket for a table. It could be a caster wheel. It really depends on what the kids are designing. I've had kids design custom chess pieces and printed them," Volke said.
He says in the business world, 3D printers make a lot of things.
"3D printers are even building structures. The technology has been around for a while. It just keeps evolving. Cheaper and easier for the do-it-yourselfers; industrial size. I mean, I think they're even using 3D printers in remote locations where they can't have a full machine shop, using metal," Volke said.
Volke says things are far different from when he was in high school — when items were designed with a paper and pencil, in 2D.
Given the rapid change in some technology, it's possible 3D printers may no longer be "The Big Thing" by the time some younger students enter the workforce. In other words, something else might replace the printers.
But Harm, of the International Society for Technology in Education, says teaching kids to collaborate on design and production will pay off no matter the machine.
"To expose children to challenge-based learning so they endure opportunities to persevere, stick with a project. Don't give up, and knowing it's OK to fail and try again to make a better design than they ever thought imaginable," Harm said.
The tech instruction for teachers in Port Washington also included work with robotics and circuitry. There's a similar session Thursday at Badger High School in Lake Geneva.
Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.
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