As a futurist I’m always looking for stories and datapoints that suggest possible directions for education and technology. Sometimes I’m actively involved in those stories.
Last Saturday I helped judge a Vermont 3d printing contest. This is an annual event, whereby middle and high school students create 3d models of historical buildings. (I’ve done this once before, in 2016). It points to some fascinating ways forward for education, and also inspires the heck out of me.
Let me explain the event, then draw some conclusions and hypotheses.
The contest took place in the town of Randolph, at Vermont Technical College, in a large gym/meeting space. A giant map of Vermont was place in the space’s center, on the floor. Teams placed some of their 3d printouts on the map, where the actual buildings are.
Not necessarily to scale:
Around the map were around twenty stations, each crewed by a team from one or two schools. We judges went around the room, taking in a presentation from each team, and asking questions. There were actually two contests, one for middle schools, one for high schools; I was assigned to the middle school one.
Each team had the following assignment.
Identify a local building of historical interest, then model it. Buildings included libraries, post offices, hotels, prisons, churches, schools, and homes. Students had to research the site, which meant digging into primary source materials (period blueprints, journals, newspapers, letters), reading into secondary sources (books, articles, web documents), interviewing people (building owners, historians, architects), and exploring the site directly (an interesting number of students never got inside their objects).
That’s classic history pedagogy so far. Then they had to build digital models of their buildings. This began with taking measurements (one ambitious group got their math teacher to help them use some kind of sightings and trig for data when they couldn’t get on site), taking photos, and finding more images, feeding everything into a 3d authoring tool. Sketchup seems to have been the main software for this year.
Then they had to take their digital models into the physical world via 3d printing. Every school had a different brand of printer, it seemed, but all had similar experiences: printing overnight (times ranged from 6 to 18 hours), figuring out when to include supporting structures that could be knocked out afterwards, coping with inevitable errors. Each team went through multiple print runs, iterating and improving over time.
Several teams showed multiple versions of a single building model, showing their development over time. Others were brave enough to show mistakes and problems.
Some teams brought the finished works unadorned and printed using one color:
Some combined multiple print colors and then painted the results by hand:
Still others added what I think were old fashioned decals. This one also used a 3d pen to add very very tiny and delicate details on the top of a roof:
The contest required end products to be 3d printouts, some multimedia presentation, and also the live presentation. Bonus points were awarded for web content linked from QR codes stuck to the bottom of each building. Some teams created substantial digital content, including PowerPoint presentations and videos, shown on laptops or iPads. The Castleton team, though, went far beyond, creating all of that, plus printed brochures, a hand-made diorama setting for one building, and 360 tours in VR (!):
Most of these projects were team-based, and I was fascinated to see how individual students worked out their roles. Sometimes one person would just own a skill – say Sketchup or research – and others would defer to, and learn from, them. At other times people would share a responsibility. Each time relied on help from one or more teachers and professional staff.
There was plenty of room for individual interest.
They presented about team work, but under questions some students would reveal their delight in mastering a task, or their surprise at being caught up in a historical topic. I found this to be especially delightful.
This being Vermont, where the youth population is declining, some teams were not based in single schools, but drawn from pairs of nearby schools. One team of four students was actually based in three schools, two of which had just merged. One mad genius of a student did her work without any peers, as far as I can tell, going from start to finish on her own (plus help from a teacher):
Judges came from a mixture of professions. I talked with architectures, engineers, state government officials, and academic faculty (engineering, architecture). Most were doing this for the first time, and so relied on the experience of we few hardy veterans. We began with a two-page rubric, which we wrote up for each team, then met in a conference room to bash out who were thought should be the winners.
Also present were various officials and representatives. Reps came from the offices of federal Senator Sanders and Representative Welch. The state government was represented by Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, on the very last day of her tenure.
So what can we deduce from this half day’s experience?
- These were high school and middle school students. That means Generation Z/Homelanders, aged roughly 11-18. None of them suffered from future shock. That’s not to say they didn’t experience frustration; many were open about problems they experienced in the course of their projects. But the technology wasn’t an alien thing to them. Think about how the middle school kids bring this experience to high school, and high schoolers take the project mentality to college. Are these institutions ready to respond?
- About that lack of future shock: did 3d printing just get normalized?
- Pedagogies: project-based learning, obviously. Inquiry-based learning, too. Team-based. Interdisciplinary: although the putative subject is history, student work clearly engaged other fields as well, from engineering and computer science to architecture and math.
- It’s another example of digital and non-digital pedagogy blending together. Perhaps we’ll cease referring to these as separate categories in a few years.
- It’s also a type of open or public learning. Student work was presented publically in person and online. Their process was also open, at least in terms of preparing materials for the web and working openly with people (students, staff, teachers) at their schools and other institutions (historical societies, libraries, buildings themselves).
- This is Vermont, one of the least digital states in the union. How widespread is this kind of experience, especially in more advanced regions?
- Also, at a local level, is Vermont prepared for these students, or will they see the state’s technological backwardness as a reason to leave?
- At no point in the entire contest did a single person mention, demonstrate, or describe using a learning management system (LMS).
- Digital presentations were a mix of PowerPoint and video. No sign of Prezi or Keynote.
One last point: here’s what I said in 2016.
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.
I had exactly the same experience and feeling at Vermont Tech.
Bravo to the organizers, applause to the teachers, and thunderous applause to the students!