On a recent Saturday at Einstein’s Workshop, a maker space outside Boston, boisterous kids were busy with Legos, mini motors and gears, magnetic tiles, pipe cleaners, posterboard, markers and tape. In a side room, about a dozen elementary and middle school students were learning computer-aided design (CAD) for 3D printers. Their instructors shut the door, but couldn’t completely keep out the creative chaos. Nor did they want to.
Like all educators mixing high-tech with hands-on, they faced a familiar challenge—the freewheeling, playful problem-solving that comes naturally to kids using blocks or craft supplies isn’t easily replicated with a computer. A few years ago, when the folks at Einstein’s Workshop bought their first 3D printer, the available CAD software seemed either too technical for young kids or too simplistic, with limited flexibility for faster learners or more advanced students.
“Being a community of DIY hackers, we decided to make our own software,” said Solomon Menashi, BlocksCAD project manager. They wanted something as intuitive as Legos, but with the power and precision of real computer modeling. The result was BlocksCAD, a free Web-based program released in June 2015 that has spread to about 1,000 active users in schools, maker spaces and fab labs worldwide.
With BlocksCAD, you create, combine and manipulate 3D shapes by stacking “block” commands rather than by typing in precise coding syntax. For example, you can drag a block command for a sphere from the shapes menu into the workspace, where you can adjust its radius. Snap on a “translate” block to move the sphere along the X, Y and Z axis, or add on a “rotate” block to spin it. Use a color block to change its hue. Hit the “Render” button, and the sphere appears within a maneuverable XYZ grid. Finished designs can be sent to a 3D printer that will fabricate them layer by layer.