Swan River School is diving deeper into 3-D printing with a project aimed at restoring the coral reef in the Caribbean Sea.
Students in grades two through six are using the technology not only to improve their understanding of the world, but also as a way to contribute to their community.
On Tuesday, fifth-graders in Shelley Emslie’s class were learning how to design coral using Tinkercad, an app containing 3-D design and modeling tools. The class of 22 students has been studying the coral reef ecosystem. Over the next two weeks, students will participate in live video chats with coral reef scientists stationed in the Caribbean through Digital Explorer.
Emslie currently is researching the possibility for student-created coral to contribute to some international scientists’ efforts to rebuild the fragile ecosystem through 3-D printing.
“You get to make pieces of coral,” Emslie said. “And the polyps grow on those. You’re helping rebuild an ecosystem. How cool is that?”
After the class talked about some of the different shapes and sizes of coral, classroom volunteers and parents Eric and Cyndy Thorsen talked about the dimensions of designing the coral based on the limitations of time and the size of the 3-D printers. Eric Thorsen is a local artist who uses 3-D printing technology to design bronze sculptures. Students got out their rulers for a refresher in converting millimeters — the dimensions used by Tinkercad — into centimeters. A design too large would take hours to print, Emslie emphasized.
Opening up Tinkercad, the students began drawing short, tall, tubular, fanned, spiky and smooth shapes and textures.
At one table, student Jake Baldi used a popular shape called an “asteroid,” a ball with a coral-like texture he manipulated into cylindrical shapes. He then used a jagged shape called “rock mountain.”
“This one is ‘asteroid’ and this one is a ‘rock mountain.’ I’m trying to make it so it’s a little spikier,” Baldi explained.
Student Norah Adoretti was basing her design on a photo of coral found in the Great Barrier Reef.
“This is kind of where it goes out,” Adoretti said, toggling between her design and the photo of coral with a slender base that widened. Landlubbers might say it is reminiscent of the African acacia tree.
“I like that it looks like fingers,” Adoretti said about coral.
Achieving a successfully printed project usually takes multiple tries and often requires reworking a design, Emslie said, holding up a 3-D printed plane a student created as an example.
“He did a prototype and it failed three times, so guess what? He’s going back to test and improve and he’s going to start the whole process again,” Emslie said.
The rural school has a total of seven 3-D printers. The most recent addition was purchased through a MontanaPBS grant. MontanaPBS is one of five stations participating in a PBS initiative called the Teacher Community Program, which supports rural educators’ efforts in using the latest technology in the classroom, according to www.pbs.org.
Swan River was one of three grant recipients.
As part of the grant, Emslie was asked to connect the technology to the community. In addition to inviting the public to see 3-D printing in action at Thorsen’s gallery in Bigfork, students created tic-tac-toe boards and pieces for residents at Rising Mountains Assisted Living Center.
Sixth-grader Gabrielle Thorsen took the lead on the project. On the first printout of X’s and O’s she saw they were flat and difficult to pick up.
“I went back in and re-created the X’s and O’s with handles,” Gabrielle said.
The next idea is to have students devise bingo pieces that are easy to move and don’t knock easily off a board if brushed against or jostled during play. When students deliver the items, Emslie challenges them to look around and see what other devices or objects could be improved to better the lives of residents.
“Getting kids to be empathetic, and look at the world with a different set of eyes, and saying, ‘how can I make that better?’ is, I think, a pretty amazing goal and 3-D printing is just one way we can do that,” she said.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.