Students model the future at 3D printer camp
Aug 28, 2013
Today they're using 3D printers to make models of favorite video game characters. Tomorrow, they may be programming 3D printers to build a two-story house or fabricate replacement blood vessels from living cells.
Thirteen students attended the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School's 3D printer camp, a two-week enrichment summer day camp (Aug. 5-16) hosted at the satellite office in Greensburg, Pa. The class was offered to high school students in PA Cyber's School of Engineering and GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) programs.
With staff assistance, they started by building the printers themselves from kits obtained from the California company Printrbot. The printers were theirs to take home at the end of camp.
"We wanted students to build 3D printers themselves because the build process is so full of valuable lessons," said Joel Cilli. Cilli, camp "counselor," is research and development coordinator for the school's STEM program.
"Objects sometimes take hours to print, so students who have to share printers in a class end up with very limited access. We wanted kids to have unlimited access, so building their own printers was a better approach."
A 3D printer is a device that layers melted plastic in thin lines that gradually build a solid object. 3D printing, said Cilli, is changing the prototyping and fabrication processes of the industrial world.
Alex Daniels is a junior who came all the way from Chester Springs in eastern Pennsylvania for the camp. One of his projects was building a pair of stands to hold his Nook tablet, using model software from the TinkerCAD.com website. After making the first stand, Daniels modified the program to lower the density of material in the second stand - an experimental tradeoff that would speed up printing but risk weakening the clip, he explained.
Enthusiastic about 3D printing, Daniels plans to volunteer as a student instructor the next time PA Cyber offers the camp.
Casey Phelan, a 3D camper from Uniontown, used her 3D printer to make items including a gift for her brother Austin. A ninth grader, Phelan said the mechanical and design concepts she learned will be helpful as she aims for a career in petroleum engineering.
Cilli said the building process helped students learn to think mechanically. In calibrating and operating the printers, they learned how different speed and density settings change the results. Through the use of many freely available 3D modeling programs, students created their own designs while developing their skills with CAD-style software.
When a set of laser-cut wooden gears on senior Tyler Everett's 3D printer didn't fit quite right, Cilli used another printer to fabricate a new set of gears out of PLA plastic. The new gears worked perfectly. Everett, a GATE student from Floreffe, Pa., plans to be a psychologist but likes computers, too, and is keeping his options open.
The chance to get his own 3D printer and learn how to build, operate and troubleshoot it persuaded Aidan Sommers of Kilbuck, Pa., to spend two weeks of his summer at 3D printer camp.
"These would normally cost $400," said Sommers. Because the school purchased the kits in bulk and offset part of the cost, the expense was brought down to $180 per student.
A new student to PA Cyber, Sommers said he and his parents became interested in cyber charter schools because of the capability to self-direct his education. The School of Engineering track and GATE program helped to convince them that PA Cyber was the right choice for him.
The 3D printer camp is just one of a number of innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives launched by PA Cyber. This past spring, 21 students participated in an online course in which they used Raspberry Pi and Arduino minicomputers.
Each the size of a deck of playing cards, Raspberry Pi and Arduino are miniature yet powerful electronic devices that are especially useful in teaching computing, Cilli said. Students learned to build circuits on the devices and write code in Python, a programming language.
Anne Kailin Northram, a 3D camper from Wilkinsburg, Pa., also participated in PA Cyber's Raspberry Pi class and is a member at TechShop Pittsburgh, a freestanding fabrication laboratory – "fab lab" – prototyping and learning center. Her dream career is to be a special effects artist in the movie industry.
Making things at 3D printer camp was fun as well as educational, she said, laughing that, "Pretty soon my whole house is going to be filled with 3D printer stuff."
"With over 11,000 total students, PA Cyber has a large number of advanced, motivated students like those who participated in 3D printer camp, who are interested in learning new technical skills," said Cilli.
About PA Cyber
Serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) is one of the largest, most experienced, and most successful online public schools in the nation. PA Cyber's online learning environments, personalized instructional methods, and choices of curricula connect Pennsylvania students and their families with state-certified and highly-qualified teachers, and rich academic content that is aligned to state standards. Founded in 2000, PA Cyber is headquartered in Midland (Beaver County) and maintains a network of support offices throughout the state. As a public school, PA Cyber is open for enrollment by any school-age child residing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and does not charge tuition to students or families.