Lately when I have entered schools it’s been edtech Christmas. I bring robots, a 3D printer, or some new app or iPad accessory and everyone including teachers are engaged like children on Christmas morning, starring at the neatly wrapped gifts just waiting to tear into them. And who blames them. Take 3D printers for instance, they are amazing. They’re so new that students and teachers don’t usually understand how they work or how they could possibly effect learning, so what do they do? They stare at it while it takes 30 minutes to print out a bracelet and I watch them as they drool. Pretty standard really. They watch the extruders leak out the softened plastic onto the emerging shape, barely taking their eyes off of it. I was the same when I first saw a 3D printer in action, but now I’ve gotten used to it. Now it almost seems common place to me, and because of that it’s much easier to think about the big picture and ask, “…for the purpose of what?”
Shiny new things are pretty useless at first. Once we get over the newness we can start to look at it for what it really is. What is that exactly in the case of a 3D printer? A fancy toy and trinket maker? Or a door that can now be opened? Truth be told the articles about 3D printed prosthetics are not representative of the mainstream of printed objects. Quite often it seems we are stuck in that initial stage of printing Darth Vadar heads, key chains or replacement board game pieces. It’s time to move on to more innovative uses, like “how do we make something with moving parts” or “what if we use the plastic that dissolves in water, what then?” Now we’re getting somewhere. Beyond the object, have we created a task with some authenticity? Are we solving a real world problem? Would anyone care to see our products? Questions to consider before we get lost. Perhaps best of all, we now have a tool that will allow students to go through multiple iterations of the design process with greater consistency. If I design, print, and gather data for a rocket nosecone, when I get to the redesign stage, I don’t have to recreate a new object from scratch. I might just adjust a small piece of the original file, reprint it, and retest. Abracadabra, my students are now engineers. Of course I’ll keep the Darth Vadar head. Merry EdTech Christmas!