Teenagers 3d printing local history: technology, pedagogy, and inspiration in Vermont

Recently I was invited to help judge a 3d printing contest for my state’s middle and high schools.  So this past Friday I drove across and down the Green Mountains to Randolph, where Vermont Technical College is based.  It was an exciting event, proof of the pedagogical power of 3d printing, and a heartening sign of the power of schools.

The contest invited teams of secondary school students to research historical architecture, then reproduce key buildings by printing them.  Some of the buildings no longer exist, or not in their original form, so reproducing them required vision and imagination.

The event began with the assembly of two groups: swarms of students and a few teachers, setting up display tables in a big gym, and a passel of judges.  The latter came from a wide range of backgrounds, from academics (in engineering, architecture, computer science) to practicing architects to cabinet makers.    I think I was invited for my work in higher education and 3d printing (for example), or perhaps my relentless call for educators to think in terms of 3d printing across the curriculum.  This contest was definitely an example of the latter.

Setup include placing copies of buildings on their geographic locations on an enormous Vermont map:

one big map of Vermont

The little squares and rectangles and printed buildings.

After we judges made our plans and did some normalization, and following the assembly of most student teams, the event kicked off with speeches.  Vermont’s Agency of Education was represented by its secretary, Rebecca Holcombe., who celebrated this as a fine, creative way to teach and learn history.  Organizer Peter Drescher explained the event’s rules and schedule.  One preservation scholar spoke to her field and also, embarrassingly, far too typically for humanists, proclaimed her former ignorance and dismissal of technology.

Then we turned to judging, as judge teams fanned out across the many displays.  One group worked on middle school teams, while another addressed high school projects; I was with the latter.  We worked for almost two hours, mostly by taking in presentations and displays, then by meeting to compare notes and determine winners.

The projects I saw were fascinating and diverse given the contest’s scope.  One team  researched the 18th-century site of Mount Independence, reproducing two buildings that no longer exist (a classic Vauban fort and a wooden barracks) and one that does (an interestingly designed museum).  Another dug into the local Spavin Cure Building, learning about architecture and the nineteenth century’s liberal attitudes towards opium.  A northern school examined the Colchester Reef Lighthouse.  One explored an unusual set of stone buildings from the 1830s.  Bridges, churches, libraries, banks, colleges, and stores all appeared in 3d printing form in that gym, flanked by historical letters, old magazines, books, iPads, laptops, and busily working printers.

Buildings in the Rutland area

One of the most impressive came from the town of Windsor, whose team thoroughly investigated a local prison.  They determined its historical arc, including building changes (additions, fires, transformations) and its changing role in the community.  They did a fine job of integrating a variety of historical documents and present day images with 3d modeling.

Windsor prison model and photograph

I was struck by the variety of social interaction among student teams.  Several were tightly knit groups, with well rehearsed presentations, clearly delineated roles (researcher, videographer, print texture obsessive, etc.), mutual respect, and general organization.  Others depended strongly but without words on their teachers and mentors.  One group was highly dysfunctional, where subgroups clearly disdained each other.  Another had a member with some form of learning disability, and his peers worked strongly to support him.  These projects were, in short, microcosms of social learning.

The Colchester Lighthouse team

Technological details:

  • Sketchup was the 3d authoring tool of choice.
  • Half of the groups I saw made publicly accessible web pages, built with WordPress, Google Sites, or Wix .  For example, the Colchester Reef Lighthouse project and the Windsor prison group.
  • At least one made a substantial (5 minutes) video, published to YouTube (and no, I failed to find it again).
  • At least half of the groups used PowerPoint slides to show their work.  Two (that I saw) used Prezi.
  • Not a single person at any point mentioned a learning management system (LMS). Not a word about BlackBoard or Moodle.  The default for digital work seemed to be sharing it publicly.

Pedagogically there were many good things going on here.  Most of the groups seems self-directed, organizing their learning by projects rather than structured assignments.  To various degrees students took ownership for their learning; rarely did I hear any defer or even refer to their teachers.  Social learning was clearly at work, since these were team projects by necessity.  For the field of history learning there was a good mix of primary and secondary sources, not to mention a striking awareness of local history.  Obviously there was a lot of technological learning going on as well.

There was also a good amount of self-reflection about the course of each project.  Some teams described their work’s twists and turns, and all were happy to answer questions.  Most were open about problems, flaws, and missteps.  Kudos to the Enosburg team who prepared a poster about their process, bravely including a “Yikes!” step:

The Enosburg team's process

The Enosburg method; click for larger.

I was impressed by how well the projects integrated history and technology.  All of the tech mentioned above was clearly a tool for understanding the historical sites, like writing a paper or creating a poster.  Accordingly every student spoke to both domains, like the one rather obsessed young man who meticulously recreated an old stone wall’s complex texture, or the lighthouse team who described with equal facility what was involved in inserting a tiny LED into their model and the process of downgrading their lighthouse’s actual (and enormous) lens.

Driving home through a very foggy afternoon, I was in a state of delight and excitement.  What an inspiring glimpse of technology-enabled learning, combining so many positive pedagogies.  What a good sign for Vermont, too.  Not only did these projects do solid local history work, but they demonstrated that our often anti-technological state could make productive use of newer technologies.

Moreover: my futures work often leads me to dark places.  Seeing these young folks starting to set forth into a world that’s not in good shape and seems to be getting worse, run by elders who often mock and dismiss them, and nonetheless striding forth in a spirit of exploration and progress – that does a heart good.  That stokes my faith in education.

More photos here.

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One Response to Teenagers 3d printing local history: technology, pedagogy, and inspiration in Vermont

  1. Pingback: Moving forward in dark times: two inspirations | Bryan Alexander

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