Learning by Making - 3D Printing

published: 2014-05-26


This weekend, I took some time to really sit down with the 3D printer. I've made several successful projects and have had as many, if not more, failures. Till now ,I have attributed most of my successes to dumb luck. Sometimes, the failures lead to dire thoughts about karma. There is a tremendous amount of information available about 3D Printing. There is the manual and the support documents available from the machine's manufacturer MakerBot. There are discussion groups, clubs, and forums to explore. I found the incredibly helpful document: "ZERO TO HERO: Replicator 2 New User Guide". All of this information never helped me understand why something went wrong when it often did. 3D printing has been attractive and interesting but ultimately frustrating.

Declaring this Memorial Weekend as a "weekend for making," I had a chance to do some serious prints. My boys wanted to make some toys. We happily set up a print of a keychain for Noah and one of the incredible figurines from Modio for Owen. We set everything up then happily left for the river. On our return, we discovered a mess of broken parts and piles of misguided plastic. The boys began to worry. Things got serious. Thanks to some free time, I was able to sit with the machine and observe how it operates.

The boys and I watched the machine. We watched the tool path of the extruder. We listened to it. We smelled it. We felt the wobble of the machine as it worked. Between failures we scraped the build plate, we cleaned out the extruder, we adjusted set screws, we applied grease. It was only after working intimately in this manner and becoming attuned to the moods of the machine that I realized the room temperature was affecting the printer's behavior. It made it behave differently during each print. If the A/C was on, the printer sounded different, unhappy.

I began to watch the temperature settings and noticed that if the print head dropped below 226° (Celsius), the plastic didn't adhere well. I knew how to adjust the temperature settings thanks to the manuals. I had not known, until now, why I would adjust the temperature settings. Finally after many hours of trial after trial, I shut the ducts to our making space and bumped up the extruder temperature by 4°. Consistent prints followed and we reprinted all of our previous failures.

Reflecting on our experience this weekend made me think about the importance of experience in the learning. All the information in the world could not help me make better prints. It did enable me to explore problems with certain confidence but it was the drive to succeed that gave our learning purpose.

This morning, my seven-year-old son and project partner asked me if I had leveled the "build-plate" before printing his final parts. He understands and uses words like "extruder," "slicing," and "calibrate." He and I have learned by doing. Our learning was driven my our will to create.

Paper Circuits

published: 2013-12-03


Working with Paul Oh, David Cole, Jennifer Dick, and Jie Qi in the “Hack Your Notebook” seminar during the National Writing Project conference in Boston was a blast. To get a sense of the activity, check out Jie Qi’s amazing work at: technolojie.com. I had to try to reproduce the fun we had with my boys.

While in Boston, Jie was tremendously kind and gave me several of her prototype LED lights. She is crowd-funding production of these “circuit stickers” and I have supported her vision. I had already gathered plenty of the leftover copper tape (with conductive adhesive) from the scraps left over at the end of the presentation and brought them home from Boston.

Central to the “Hack Your Notebook” seminar was a booklet of templates produced through collaboration between the National Writing Project, Jie Qi, and David and Jennifer’s educational consulting group CV2. I photocopied the most relevant pages from the booklet. These templates lead the user through the creation of a basic circuit by “drawing in the lines” with the conductive tape. The “brilliance” of these templates is that upon completion of the coin-battery powered circuit, turning the page reveals that you had been building a narrative at the same time. There is a literal and figurative “lightbulb moment.” Jie made it very clear that the artwork and storytelling aspects of this project are as important to her as the science of circuitry.

I demonstrated my project to the boys and then let them follow the template. They were each successful completing the basic circuit. When the boys turned their pages, I got to relive the sense of joy and excitement that I felt while working through the book.

I was then blown away by their artwork. Noah started brainstorming how he would create his circuit by drawing out a plan. He allowed the constraint of having only one light lead his design decisions. He decided to create a character who was winking. Owen was set on drawing a tiger. He naturally decided to illuminate his sun.

A great thing about this project is that the boys did not require my help to find success. Both the six and the ten-year-old were perfectly capable of design, implementation, and troubleshooting. Noah patiently worked on a bug for 15 minutes until he discovered that by turning the battery over, he could get his circuit to work. This led to a conversation about what he learned regarding polarity and the flow of electricity.

I am excited because the success that we had in Boston is replicable. This is a fun activity that I was happy to share with my children and I am excited to run in my classroom. I have already ordered more conductive tape and batteries. I have just enough LEDs for my “Digital Literacy” course and I’ll look forward to production of Jie’s magical “circuit stickers” in the spring.

I hope to convince Paul Oh from the National Writing Project to produce more of the wonderful templates that make this project so accessible.

Jie, Paul, David and Jennifer, the collaborators on the wonderful templates that make this project so accessible, have given permission to share a pdf of the booklet. It includes all of the information anyone would need to get started with paper circuitry: the science behind circuitry, how to put together the necessary materials, the templates, a unit plan for further exploration, and a description of the standards addressed by the project.

Download Paper Circuitry and make paper circuits today!

Video of the Boys and Their Success