Posts Tagged ‘Digital Fabrication’

CCO Creative Commons image

So, I’ve been thinking about the iterative process in Digital Fabrication, the STEAM class that I teach. The course is a minor and only a semester long. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have some goals.

One of the things my STEAM colleagues and I have been talking about is how important it is that everyone who takes a course in our department, major or minor, experiences and practices of the iterative design process. We really want students to try to make something and then try to make it better. Most importantly, we want students to believe that this process is the way design and creation work, not just what you do when something doesn’t work the first time.

What I have been noticing is that some students want to keep working on that first design until they think it is perfect before trying it out on the 3D printer or laser cutter. Here are my issues with that strategy:

  • Too much time has been spent on the initial design without any testing
  • So much time leads to so much investment and often less willingness to alter fundamental parts of the design
  • And, now there is just less time to spend on the next drafts

So, I’m looking for ways to force my students to get that “shitty first draft” (term courtesy of Ann Lamott and her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which I am reading at the moment.) out of the way so that we can move on to the better second draft. Currently, we are working on making geared drawing machines. (We are basing our design on this Tinker Crate project.) Finally today, I gave the group a time limit to get a cardboard model built and ready. Students were in groups and I may also have said that I was also trying to complete this challenge and it would be sad if with many people to work they could not get something done and I could. I do NOT like to do that kind of thing where I put myself in competition with the students in this way, but I was desperate. I did make it clear that I had not done this project either.

In the time frame, we had 3 models. Then, we made a list of information we learned that we could take to our next versions of the various parts–actual sizes, relative sizes, pieces to be made with each tool and in each material. We also considered some ways that we would stage the creation of some of the pieces to give ourselves more margin for error. Then in a next draft, we could add in another set of specifics. And, we divided up the jobs so that we can get a next draft completed very quickly.


I think there might be something to the idea that we make several cardboard models so that we each have to wrestle with the project as a whole, and then collaborate in bigger groups or one big group to make the next version. Once we get a few more pieces ready, we can test our machine for real. If it works, I totally want one.



So, I’ve been thinking about the catapult project in my Digital Fabrication class. I wrote the other day about my tweaks of the process and shared the image that I was using for my inspiration.

Here’s how my personal catapult is going. First I designed a new arm. I wanted to have just circles and lines and get rid of the bucket as the ping-pong ball (our projectile of choice) holder. Therefore, I made the arm from a series of circles that were the size that would hold let the ping-pong ball sit on them without falling through. Initially, I imagined that the lines/bars would have some function. However, it turned out I didn’t need them, so I broke them off, mostly. You can see the last bits of the bars as diameters in the circles, but the next version does not have them at all. The base incorporates the brick pattern and the circle. The first version flings the ping-pong ball just fine.

First I designed a new arm. I wanted to have just circles and lines and get rid of the bucket as the ping-pong ball (our projectile of choice) holder. Therefore, I made the arm from a series of circles that were the size that would hold let the ping-pong ball sit on them without falling through. Initially, I imagined that the lines/bars would have some function. However, it turned out I didn’t need them, so I broke them off, mostly. You can see the last bits of the bars as diameters in the circles, but the next version does not have them at all.

The base incorporates the brick pattern and the circle. It’s abstracted a little bit. Since the last row has an open portion, I can use that to hook up my rubber band as well. I can also put more tension on the rubber band by wrapping around a few rows, if need be. So handy.

The first version flings the ping-pong ball just fine.

When I looked at the catapult from the front, I noticed that the circle of the base and the first circle of the arm could line up better and maybe look like concentric circles if the arm circle is bigger. Turns out, I can get close, but because the arm is always on a bit of an angle, the circles of the base and the arm are never quite in the same plane. Still, I think it’s a design improvement.

Now what?

Since the catapult flings the ping-pong ball fine, at this point it’s all about improving my design. Maybe some of the “brick” pattern that is in the base should go between or across the two middle circles in the arm? The final circle has to be hollow for the ball to sit there. Hmmm.

So I’ve been thinking about the catapult project in my Digital Fabrication class. This is the first project in the course and the goal is for the students to gain some familiarity with the iterative design process and the 3D design software that we use.

However, this class lives in the STEAM department. The amount of art in the project was virtually nill. Earlier in the year, I already mentioned my newfound appreciation for cardboard as a makerspace material. And, I have incorporated the cardboard step in my new process here as well. However, it was too focussed on function. Although it can take people too long, in my opinion, to complete the catapult, more of that is about my management than the use or not of particular materials. Anyway, back to the Art. I vowed this go round to be more intentional about the design aspect of the project.

Here is the new process:

  • Some basic work with Tinkercad (skills based, not related to this design challenge)
  • Informal assessment of some key Tinkercad skills
  • Design walk
  • Drawings of catapult ideas
  • Cardboard
  • 3D print models, review, redesign, etc

The new steps here include the basic Tinkercad work, now unconnected to the final project (which at first seemed like a step back from an integrated approach), informal assessment, and the design walk.

CCO public domain image by Pily63 on Pixabay.

I am using this image as inspiration for my new catapult design. CCO public domain image by Pily63 on Pixabay.

The design walk was something I tried to do more informally last semester. I tried sending folks out around the campus to notice design elements in our buildings several of which have interesting and thoughtful design elements. It turns out that students going on independent design walks at the beginning of the course are not my best idea. So, this semester we went to two specific locations as a group. We went to our former library space and our newly built library space. Even though there are no longer shelves or books in the old space, the students remember what it looked like since the new space has been open for under a year. We talked about the functions that both spaces fulfill in addition to the more subtle message that each space conveyed to visitors about how to exist in the space and what it means to study and acquire knowledge.

I also suggested about thinking about their catapult as art pieces and asked them to consider in what type of museum or exhibit it would belong–to take inspiration from that discipline/time period/aesthetic in their design. I am also designing a new catapult.


Let the designing begin!


So, I’ve been thinking about collaborating. I wrote about the opportunity to have my digital fabrication students work with some 5th graders. Here’s the update.

The 5th graders sent us a handful of drawings. Some had multiple views and details. I gave the drawings out to any of my students who were interested (even when they learned there would be no money involved) and they got started. By the end of a class period, they had a decent design. I had them take screen shots of their Tinkercad models and put the pictures in a shared google folder.

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The next time we met, my students had comments back from the 5th graders on their designs, also in the shared folder. I have to say that my students were a little surprised to get back comments that asked for alterations. However, it was a great opportunity to discuss what it means to be hired, even “hired”, by and to work with someone with whom you are not in class. One student was annoyed that he was asked to put spikes on the top of the ziggurat he had designed as he did not notice them in the original drawing. I looked at the drawing again and there was definitely something zig-zag-y at the top, but it’s hard to tell. In the end my students did make changes.

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I liked that the 5th graders were calling the shots. And, since we were doing all the communicating via pictures and notes, my students did not intimidate or squash the voices of the 5th graders. Another benefit of this project was that it gave my students another opportunity to design something in Tinkercad and to improve their skills on something before we move on to our final, more open-ended project.

Since my class only meets twice a rotation of seven days, it hasn’t exactly been speedy work. Next semester I hope that I can find or run into another chance to do the making part of another project for another class. I’m already volunteering them.

So, I’ve been thinking about collaboration. Sometimes you work so hard to get some particular collaboration going, set the ground work, spend lots of time meeting, work out elaborate schedules, etc. Other times, the project just falls into your lap or appears fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.

Yesterday, I received an email from a new colleague in the lower school, subject line: Ancient Sumer. Do you not get emails with that subject line?

Hi Wendy,

We are going to begin our unit on Ancient Sumer.  I was planning on breaking the class into 6 groups and each group will research a different topic.  They will then have to create 2-3 artifacts that pertain to their topic and we are going to create a class museum.  Would there be a way that each group could print one of their artifacts on the 3D printer?

Let me know your thoughts!

I jumped at the idea. First of all, I used to teach that content, so I have a strange fondness for it, given that Ancient Sumer is otherwise an unusual favorite topic. Anyway, I started replying right away with details about the software we use, how we might have a class account to navigate the issue students under 13, and how 3D printing can go awry.

When 3D Prints go wrong. (CCO image by me)

When 3D Prints go wrong. (CCO image by me)

Then, a different idea popped into my head, and I switched gears mid-email.

Or, here’s another idea. My digital fabrication classes are getting pretty good at designing. Your students could make drawings or models of the artifacts and meet with my students (could be virtually by Skype or whatever) and my students could do the designing in the software. I have a few students who are really pretty good at it. Would the 5th graders like being able to “order” a piece? It might highlight the need for clear description and communication skills.

Well a few more emails and we were set. I am so excited.

I told one of my sections today that some 5th graders were going to be hiring them to design artifacts. I forgot to use air quotes when I said hiring, and there was some initial discussion of money changing hands, but I set them straight on their pro bono situation.

There are several things I love about this idea. First, it is an interesting way to have meaningful cross-division interaction. As a Prek-12 school on two campuses, we always want to build connections between students in our lower school and those in our middle and upper schools. Second, it is a real project. There are real-live students with a real-life need for these 3D-printed objects. My students will be able to see the museum exhibit that they contribute work to. Finally, if some of my students are considering taking our Engineering course in later years, this is a project is a great preparation or trial.

I can’t wait to get started.

So, I’ve been thinking about the digital fabrication class that I teach. It meets twice in a seven-day rotation schedule and is ungraded. I have two sections of 9 students each; we have three printers. Sounds like a very reasonable situation. Until it is not reasonable.

The first project for class is a catapult. Students have to design a catapult in parts and have it throw a ping-pong ball 10 feet. For a while, everyone is just designing. Then they start sending me the files fast and furious. The big, fast printer wasn’t working at the beginning. Ok. The other two are not fast, but they were working. And then there was one.

With a back log of files to print, I had to regroup.

Lucky for me I had an idea based on what happened with one student before the total mayhem began. One student had a base and an arm, but had not figured the space for the arm to move within the base correctly. But, it was a lot of printed material. In an effort to gain something from this version, I suggested he try to use one or both piece in some other configuration. He turned his base upside down, grabbed a lot of rubber bands and got to work. He may have used an arm from other student’s project. The result was not pretty, but it worked. I affectionately named it the Frankenstein monster catapult.

So, when my next class came in a few days later when we were down to one printer, I announced it was a Frankenstein make-it-work day. I told students to take what they had, use whatever cast-off prints they found around, look for other materials, and get that ping-pong ball 10 feet. The students went to work. Some used popsicle sticks to create missing pieces, others rubber-banded all sorts of whatever together.

There was a flurry of making. Students were more creative in their ideas. There was gluing, drilling, hacking. And, many ping-pong balls were flung. Energy was up.

By the next class, I will have more pieces printed. We are back up to two, maybe three printers. However, I think I will just call a halt to more printing.

There was also a design component to this challenge, which our “make it work” moment did not address. I may take one more period to have students consider the design and look of their creation and make a plan for a next version. However, I don’t think we will print anymore.

It turned out the constraint of the printers being out of commission forced the students to think more creatively, which was the point anyway. Given the numbers and printer limitations, I may put students in groups next time. Groups would cut down on the items to print and force some discussion and collaborating, which in a class that includes students from several grade levels, would be helpful.

Silver lining found.

Update: As soon as I published this, I read John Spencer’s post about duct tape and cardboard. I am definitely thinking about how to start my next project with these materials and THEN move to designing and 3D printing.

makerspaceSo, I’ve been thinking about the makerspace at my school. I’ve written about it a lot already this school year. Over the summer we moved into a new (to us) space and got fun new machines. As much as I love to go in and make things, I think the intent was really for students to use the space, not just me.

To that end, we in the makerspace have talked a lot about how to get students in the door. Our experience has been that once we get students in, they come back, but we have to get them in first. I am not at all above a little slight-of-hand to make that happen. Nothing really devious, but I will certainly twist some arms, drop what I am doing, and/or try things that may lead to fire. I have lasercut books (sometimes, but not always, fire), orange peels, and chocolate in addition to the regular wood and cardboard.

Some students have reason to come in because their class meets in the room. At the moment, Engineering, Robotics, Java, Digital Fabrication, and Design Fabrication all meet in the space. If this sounds like there must not be much time left, only Engineering and Java are major classes. The others are minor classes so they only meet a few times a rotation (2 meetings in 7 school days). In addition, a few student-led activities meet there. We have an activity period mid day on Wednesdays and Thursdays and a group of students started a design club. I’m not sure what they do, but I think it’s 3D design stuff. Finally, an after-school Science Olympiad group has formed to meet student interest and they have joined the excitement.

One thing that has been a lucky coincidence is that @Mr_Fornaro who is in charge of the space also teaches Statistics, and students come in to get extra help from him. Once they are here, even though they may have come for math help, they get some makerspace demonstration. It’s the freebie that comes with stats help.

We have a few students who are involved in ‘makerships’ which is our markerspace-internship mashup. These students come in twice a rotation both to learn how to use the machines and to work independently. It’s exciting to see these folks engage in all sorts of work. We have a couple of individuals who are really becoming experts on either the laser cutter or other tools. They are almost to a point where they could supervise the space for short periods of time. So exciting!

In the late fall/early winter we tried a few pop-up activities to entice students to come in and make things. We got a few takers, but it wasn’t a great return on investment.

However, this spring attendance is up. I can’t necessarily explain it. I attributing most of it to the pattern described in the 1980’s shampoo commercial “she told two friends, and they told two friends.” While we have not gotten too far removed from the second or maybe third set of original friends, we do have confident students in the space who attract others and can begin to support them once they get there.

A solid first year!