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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A Kids’ Coding Expert Says We’re Making Computer Class Way Too Boring

[Mitch Resnick in this NPR article highlights the importance of letting kids “play” with code. If we just have kids solve pre-determined problems, it’s like teaching writing by only learning grammar. I’ve been fortunate to see kids tap into the power of Scratch in my work with the in school programs at South Fayette School District and the Manchester Academic Charter School, as after-school programs sponsored by the YMCA. It works everywhere.]


Photo by Norton Gusky CC 4.0

For Computer Science Education Week (Dec. 7-13), the nonprofit has helped organize nearly 200,000 “Hour of Code” events around the world. It’s advocating for computer coding as a basic literacy and an essential ingredient for jobs of the future, and there’s a lot of momentum behind the idea.

The biggest school systems in the country, New York City and Los Angeles Unified, each announced this fall that computer science will be a required course for all grades within 10 years. Coding is also part of national curricula in the U.K. and soon will be in Australia.


Mitchel Resnick has been at the forefront of computer science and early education for decades. He heads up something called the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, which develops new technologies for creativity at MIT’s Media Lab.

In the early 2000s, his team developed Scratch, a “visual” programming language. Visual means it depicts commands as blocks that can be snapped together, like Legos, into more complex sets of instructions. A version called ScratchJr, intended for those as young as 5, has been downloaded over 1.5 million times from the Apple App Store.

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Are Hardware Toys the Future of Kids’ Coding?

[There’s a growing awareness that kids need to “make” things. In this Edsurge article there are a variety of resources highlighted that give learners a chance to make a computer or design tools and then code them. In Pittsburgh this awareness of “Making” has grown as over 100 schools now have Maker Spaces.]

By Blake Montgomery Dec 7, 2015

Plenty of games and apps teach kids to code. But educators and toymakers are betting that teaching computer science isn’t about coding at all.

“Computers have gotten so user-friendly that modern people, maybe not just kids, expect the computer to come to us,” Gene Luen Yang, a graphic novelist and computer science teacher, told EdSurge earlier this year. “But if you want to get into the nitty gritty of how to create new technology, you need to understand how the computer works natively.”

The proliferation of devices has made technology a ubiquitous presence in children’s lives. But that does not mean they understand how anything works. Enter computer hardware toys, which hopefully build kids’ understanding of how electronics function.

The creators of hardware toys believe that playing will endear technology to kids and inspire their academic interest. Kano, a build-it-yourself computer kit, spells out the ideal progression in its company tagline: “Make a computer, learn what’s inside, play with code. Spark a lifelong passion for computing and the arts.”

There’s a market for toys like these. In the most recent available data from 2013, Arduino had sold 300,000 units official units, with 700,000 more unofficial imitation units in circulation. Arduino makes a microcontroller that forms the basis of do-it-yourself digital devices.

Raspberry Pi, a computer the size of a credit card, has sold three million units to date. The cost of entry is decreasing, too. The latest iteration of the Raspberry Pi, the Pi Zero, is just $5.

Some tools are even free: in July, the BBC released the BBC micro:bit, a palm-sized codeable computer, which will be distributed free to every UK student in year seven, usually students age 11 to 13. The hope is to engage students with the new UK coding curriculum.

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