Naperville kids tinker with 3-D technology

It’s one thing to get technology, it’s another to see the possibilities that can be achieved.

For the past several weeks, students at Crone Middle School in Naperville in the southern end of Indian Prairie District 204 have been designing dice, miniature buildings, birds, building blocks, bears and bracelets that stretch.

Through a grant from Caterpillar, the ideas students create on the computer are being turned into reality with a three-dimensional printer. Crone currently is the only school in the district with a 3-D printer.

Students could print out fancier objects they find on various websites, but that’s not the point, said Sandra Knight, computers/technology teacher at the school and one of the advisers for the STEAM Team. She said kids need to learn to use their imagination and see if what they envision in their heads can become reality.

Right now, students are sticking to designing small objects that can be printed in 30 minutes or less. Because a new model of the MakerBot printer is due out any day, Knight was able to negotiate use of an older model until the updated machine arrives. Knight said the newer version prints more quickly and can print larger objects. It also has a phone application that allows the school staff to monitor a print job from across the room, or anywhere for that matter.

Sixth-graders Geoffrey Tian and Rohit Panse already are making strides using Tinkercad, an entry level software program for creating digital designs that can be printed as 3-D objects.

Geoffrey designed a bird, a nest and a tree all using Tinkercad. So far only the bird was printed.

He said he was inspired to build his miniature nature scene after seeing a cardinal one day.

Rohit was thinking more along practical applications. He is waiting for his banana opener to print. His idea was to create a tool with a sharp edge to slice down the side of a banana for easy peeling.

Knight and other STEAM Team leaders and school staff told the students the possibilities for creating objects on the 3-D printer are endless.

On Friday, Crone social worker Carolyn Rivers shared video clips from a television station in St. Louis, Mo., featuring her niece and several students at Washington University. The undergrads created a pink robotic prosthetic arm for a 13-year-old girl who lost her arm in a boating accident when she was 6. The plastic for the arm was fabricated with a 3-D printer.

Knight reminded students that prostheses can cost upwards of $6,000, and the biomedical engineering students were able to craft an arm for the girl for $200 worth of materials. Unlike other prosthetics the girl has, her new pink arm can grip and release objects through controlled movements in her shoulder.

While it will be unlikely the middle school students will be printing limbs anytime in the future, Knight is looking around the school for projects the student might be able to tackle.

Knight said the plastic pieces that help a computer keyboard rise up or down are always breaking in the Learning Resource Center. She said the school might be able to create their own replacement pieces.

Next year STEAM Team students are interested in competing in wind turbine competitions. Knight said students now will be able to fabricate their own blades and other pieces with the new printer.

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