Teaching virtual design in a physical world

I first became familiar with the term “digital fabrication” when I was finishing up my dissertation at the University of Virginia. My advisor, Glen Bull, came into my office one day and asked me to watch a demo with a machine he had recently found. I watched with fascination as he created a 3-D model on the computer, printed it as a 2-D net, cut it out in seconds on the CraftROBO machine and folded it into an exact replica of the model on the screen. This was amazing on several fronts:

  • It took a matter of minutes to do what would have taken me a whole math lesson (or more) to do with my 4th grade students
  • The fold lines were clean and perforated. The physical object actually looked like the model on the screen. For students who have been spoon fed high-quality media since birth, that makes a difference.
  • The design was separate from the actual object, which means I could go back to the computer model and make alterations/corrections, then print another one.

That final point is, in my opinion, significant. Let me explain this by making a comparison to the writing process. For children, the act of writing something by hand is laborious. It’s labor-intensive to me, and I’ve been doing it for 35 years. So, when children write something on paper, they want that to be the first and final copy of that particular piece of writing. It’s not that they don’t like proofreading, editing and revising, but every change they make means another word, sentence, paragraph or page they will have to rewrite. Writing, in addition to being cognitively demanding, is physically demanding on a child’s fine-motor skills. Perhaps Malcolm Gladwell is right, that the best people in a certain field aren’t always the most naturally gifted, but those in the right place at the right time with the opportunity to perfect their skills. Maybe the best writers in school are those that don’t get burned out from the physical act of writing.

The same is true when students are creating things in the classroom. I used to have my students cut out nets from graph paper and fold those shapes into 3-dimensional objects. After spending more than one math lesson to do this,  we could finally get to the learning. This is not considered efficient in the business or medical world, yet in education we just kind of shrug it off and learn to deal with it. And what happened if a student’s shape was not exactly symmetrical or was missing a side? Well, they got to be the kid with the lopsided shape. What if I wanted to demonstrate how changing the dimensions of the shape could conserve volume but change surface area? I guess I could have the students cut out a new shape, but there goes another 15-20 minutes. The fact that the media students used to design the object also became the object used to teach the concept was problematic.

This is not as much of a problem when the students design their model on the computer because they can manipulate it without having to physically create another shape. And for all those Piaget and Montessori fans out there, the end result is still a physical object that students can touch and compare. Students learn the basic foundations of rapid prototyping and iterative design, two principals and practices that pretty much define research and development. This is a far cry from the current model of “one and done” projects in schools today.

Below is  a video created by the folks in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia who are starting to explore how digital fabrication can be applied in schools to enhance student learning.

I will follow up in a couple of days and explain how I took this concept and turned it into a learning activity for my preservice teachers.

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