We hear a lot about Hod Lipson's Fab@Home project, the fairly inexpensive 3-D printer designed to be a sort of "first 3-D printer" for the enthusiast, in the same way the Apple I was a hobbyist machine to introduce the public to the new technology. But that's only part of Lipson's work, and his Fab@School project is at least as inspiring as Fab@Home. "In the long term, I'd like to see manufacturing in the classroom just like we see computers in the classroom: a tool." A 3-D printer in every classroom--that's a dream project with legs.
Lipson first demonstrated the Fab@Home 3-D printer for his son's second-grade classroom, showing how to print a space shuttle out of two different colors of Play-Doh. It was an instant hit. "Something we've always noticed is that kids are really fascinated by this tech," he says. "Immediately the kids were excited. Some wanted bigger wings, some were calculating how many spaceships they could print with one block of Play-Doh." Though it seems like a trick, this is, at its core, a way to get kids to engage with math, engineering, and design.
Later, the Fab@Home team was contacted by the University of Virginia, which wanted to supply a few schools with 3-D printers and classroom-friendly software. Some of these are 3-D printers, and some are 2-D fabricators (for example, an automatic paper trimmer--draw a shape on the computer, and the fabricator cuts it out). But the project has been a huge hit, and is moving fast. "We're working with foam cutters this week," says Lipson. "It cuts shapes out of foam using a hot wire."
What's more important is to show the creators of the famously inflexible and (depending on who you ask) outdated math and science curriculums is that 3-D printers aren't just fun for the students. Lipson and his fellow 3-D printer pioneers need to show that using these devices quantitatively helps kids learn better. Lipson isn't aiming at an engineering curriculum to go along with math and science; "I would like to see it integrated into the existing curriculum," he says.
The possibilities are amazing. "You can teach regular math and science concepts better--surface volume, that kind of thing--if the kids can actually make and see them," says Lipson. "You could even teach history, by making ancient artifacts." What Lipson really wants to do is encourage those who often write off math and science by an early age to think twice about ignoring it. "Kids tend to form their opinion about whether they're good at math or whether they like it by around fourth grade, so we're putting a lot of effort to try to do this before then," he says. That's tricky, because the public school curriculum is focused on basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic at that time, but Lipson sees personal fabrication and all the benefits that come from it as just as important.
"When you design things, a figurine, whatever, and you press a button and you see the thing being made in front of your eyes and you take it home that day, I think there's something very empowering in that moment," says Lipson. The Fab@School project wants to make 3-D printers an essential part of education--and it might be just the kind of revolution to get our math and science programs back on track.
[Check out a video of Fab@School's 2-D fabricators in action here.]