Kids Code Their Own 3D Creations

[The South Fayette School District has been one of the beta testers for BlocksCAD. Solomon Menashi, BlocksCAD project manager, will be leading a workshop at South Fayette as part of the STEAM Innovation Summer Institute the week of June 20.]


Adam Green, an instructor at Einstein’s Workshop, shows 3D printers to students learning BlocksCAD, a free 3D-design software developed at the Workshop. Photo: Chris Berdik


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.

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Designing Super Heroes

Rather than replace a hand, the Superhero Cyborg project encouraged children to use 3D design and printing tools to create a unique prosthetic that gave then a new superpower - like shooting glitter, carrying a heavy bag or holding the reins while horse riding Photograph: Sarah O'Rourke/Autodesk

Rather than replace a hand, the Superhero Cyborg project encouraged children to use 3D design and printing tools to create a unique prosthetic that gave then a new superpower – like shooting glitter, carrying a heavy bag or holding the reins while horse riding Photograph: Sarah O’Rourke/Autodesk

[More and more schools are getting students involved in Human-Centered Design activities. Here’s a great example of what kids can do to change the lives of other students. In Pittsburgh, the Montour School District plans to offer a workshop this summer around this theme. Let’s hope more schools follow the suit.]

In a hidden room in the back of a pier overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a young girl shoots glitter across the room with a flick of her wrist. On the other side of the room, a boy is shooting darts from his wrist – some traveling at least 20ft high, onto a landing above. It feels like a superhero training center or a party for the next generation of X-Men and, in a way, it is.

This is Superhero Cyborgs, an event that brings six children together with 3D design specialists and augmentation experts to create unique prosthetics that will turn each child into a kind of superhero.

The children are aged between 10 and 15 and all have upper-limb differences, having either been born without a hand or having lost a limb. They are spending five days with prosthetics experts and a design team from 3D software firm Autodesk, creating prosthetics that turn a replacement hand into something much more special.

“We started asking: ‘Why are we trying to replicate the functionality of a hand?’ when we could really do anything. Things that are way cooler that hands aren’t able to do,” says Kate Ganim, co-founder and co-director at KidMob, the nonprofit group that organised this project in partnership with San Rafael, California 3D software firm Autodesk. KidMob first ran this type of project at Rhode Island’s Brown University in 2014.

KidMob’s previous projects have included designing a fence for a school and creating a youth center for an area devastated by a typhoon. The group recently applied to work on the XQ Super School Project to rethink US high schools, funded by the late Steve Jobs’ wife, Laurene Powell Jobs.

KidMob conceived the Superhero Cyborg project after discovering RoboHand, an open-source design for a prosthetic hand that anyone can 3D print at home. While the hand serves a purpose, its functionality is limited and it looks like a cyborg attachment rather than a traditional hand.

Instead of thinking of a missing limb as a disability, the Superhero Cyborgs project re-frames it as an opportunity. If you don’t have a hand, then you can have anything – it’s a blank slate.

At the end of the project, the children showed off their creations to Autodesk employees and were paired with a mentor that could help them refine their idea over the next few months.

“The goal for them is to really prototype and walk away with a working design model, or one that is really close that they can continue on with,” says Sarah O’Rourke, a marketing manager at Autodesk and Superhero Cyborgs project lead.

Details of each superhero prosthetic are being posted on the DIY site Instructables and hacking site Project Ignite in the hope that it inspires other groups, schools and individuals to follow suit. “A classroom might work on building a project and then donate a finished hand to someone they know or appoint it to someone in the community who is in need,” O’Rourke said.

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5 Tech Trends that Could Supercharge Education in 2016

[In this EdTech article five trends are highlighted that may make a major impact on both K-12 and higher education in 2016. I’m teaching an Osher course for senior adults at Carnegie Mellon University that will look at six trends that are making a difference – coding, personalized learning, flipped learning, game-based learning, virtual reality, and robotics. It’s interesting to see how the two merge.]

The technologies of tomorrow are already making headway into education, and others are poised for mass distribution in 2016.

Science-fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

The technologies of tomorrow are already being tested in select classrooms today, laying the seeds for the future of how students could learn. With 2016 fast approaching, technology analysts have been busy prognosticating the top technology trends. A few of these technologies have already made headway into education, and others are poised for mass distribution, with the promise of ground-shaking change in their wake.

We’ve reviewed a few of these trends through the lens of how they could affect classrooms in both K–12 and higher education.

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