By: Jessica Weber
So what does computational thinking have to do with 3D printing anyways? Turns out a lot!
In this post, I hope to shed some light on how computational practices are evident in student learning while engaged in the 3D design process.
Computational Practices Defined:
Brennan and Resnick (2012) outline key dimensions of computational thinking including computational concepts, practices, and perspectives. They state, “Computational practices focus on the process of thinking and learning, moving beyond what you are learning to how you are learning” (p. 7).
These practices include:
- being incremental and iterative
- testing and debugging
- reusing and remixing
- abstracting and modularizing
There are many examples of how these practices are embedded in coding activities in the classroom using programs such as Scratch. I contend that students use these very same practices when engaged in 3D design.
Setting the Context:
I embarked on an adventure with my intermediate class to discover the what, why, and how of 3D printing in the classroom environment:
- What are the benefits and challenges of integrating 3D printing in the classroom?
- Why should students be exposed to 3D digital tools?
- How does 3D printing connect with the Ontario curriculum and the development of global competencies?
The Journey Told:
From the beginning of this journey, we discovered that the ability to persist and overcome challenges was very much a part of 3D design. We experienced setbacks with faulty print jobs, so we learned how to calibrate and control print settings. Our 3D designs, using Tinkercad, were not always successful so we re-assessed and altered components and dimensions. The acronym FAIL became our motto: First Attempt In Learning. This theme of failing forward appeared again and again in student reflections such as this one - “I think that having the 3D printer taught us that it’s okay to fail. Let’s take a step back, look at what’s wrong, and fix it. And figure out how to fix it”. Students learned a great deal about the need to see mistakes as stepping stones. They learned how to ‘debug their designs’ and, in this way, the practice of testing and debugging became very much a part of the learning process.
A few of our projects included constructing our own puzzle cubes, creating monuments to celebrate significant aspects of life in Canada, and designing prisms to hold a specific capacity. Students developed a deep understanding of the iterative nature of the design process - another computational practice. They asked questions, conducted research, generated ideas, created prototypes, and altered designs as needed. Learning became rooted in the process rather than any one product. Learning was social as students asked questions and provided assistance to each other based on skill sets and aptitudes. Collaboration was authentic and feedback and reflection constant.
“By creating an intellectual environment in which the emphasis
is on process we give people with different skills and interests
something to talk about” (Papert, 1980, p. 185).
Beyond projects such as these, the 3D printer became another way for students to express themselves and share their learning. Creativity was often palpable. They would reuse and remix objects and files to generate their own designs. I recall a student grouping multiple triangles to create a hexagon, and another scaling a gear for a design challenge prototype. Much like students remix in Scratch, students would use .stl files in the construction of their own designs. The intentional use of various components led to some truly amazing creations.
“One of the things I have learned is how to innovate. Innovation to me
is to create something that is unique and to inspire others
with your creations.” - student reflection
“My interest is in the process of invention of “objects-to-think-with,” objects
in which there is an intersection of cultural presence, embedded knowledge, and the
possibility for personal identification” (Papert, 1980, p. 11).
Seymour Papert eloquently defined the need for tangible objects for students to think and reason with. In this way, I believe he would see the great potential of 3D design in the classroom. Computational practices developed through the use of 3D printing requires an innovative learning environment where the design process can thrive- where students ask questions based on curiosities, develop new knowledge through research and experimentation, create prototypes to suit specific purposes, test their solutions and make refinements, and share their learning with others. The focus then moves to the process of learning, and thinking is made visible through reflection on action.
My hope is for more educators (and students!) to experience the great joy and excitement of learning and experimentation through 3D design. Taking a leap with my students and engaging deeply in design thinking incorporating computational practices led to some of the most powerful professional development I have experienced. Remember to reach out and invite others in to your journey - I could not have done this without the support of my PLN and community partners. There is always uncertainty with experimentation however the benefits are more than worth it. As stated in the 21st Century Competencies: Foundation Document for Discussion, “Technology is playing more of a role in society as well as in the classroom and can be a powerful tool in enabling deeper learning” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016, p. 35).
Brennan, K., Resnick, M. (2012). New frameworks for studying and assessing the development of computational thinking. Presented at the American Education Researcher Association, Vancouver, Canada.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2016). 21st Century Competencies: Foundation Document for Discussion.
Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books