3D Printing. Stem. Networked Technologies & Educational Change


This week I visited Cinter to talk with Chris Verbick and Charlotte Downs about their use of 3D Printer technology. They talk about their involvement with STEM; the wider uses of 3D printing; engineering and design and what makes the process fairly unique.

The above film is just a truncated version of some quite long conversations we had. I will be including longer form media in my new L4L audio podcast starting next week. Audio will be my first choice for all the longer interviews that didn’t make it into my films. I will be updating this blog and others with the link when I have edited that down.


My experience of networked 3D printing stretched back to when I ran a training island for IT teachers in Second Life. One of the projects was experimenting with using Google Sketchup to design, then make, architectural structures print out in 3D virtual environments as part of a R&D initiative I was working on. I took great joy in printing Doric columns for a temple I was making and watch them appear in a holodeck I was building. I funded the majority of the project myself for 5 years and eventually sold the whole thing to representatives for the British Computer Society for a quid. But that’s another story…


But, as I point out in the Vlog, I first encountered networked 3D printing technologies in the real world at the Mozilla Festival two years ago.

I was contracted to film parts of the festival for Mozilla including some interviews with the organisers. As I wandered around the stalls with my sound technician I came across the Makerbot printer activity and was intrigued. Children were designing objects in MineCraft and CAD programs and then sending up the designs to a server which took the code, processed it and sent it directly to a MakerBot 3D Printer. For me that was an interesting concept – concrete instantiation of ideas – children were manufacturing their ideas – virtually then literally!


A lot of what I do is involved in exploring and reflecting on emerging technologies. I am fascinated by how social interaction works online and face to face and how that dynamic plays out over time. How technologies facilitate or are a bar to this is vital in the future.

In early 2012 I had interviewed a couple of people about the RepRap machines and visited a Design and Technology education centre in Nottingham for Open Source Schools. There, in pride of place, was a 3D Printer costing 1000’s of pounds but totally inaccessible, not networked so I was aware of the technology but not, exactly, how it could be of use beyond that department. The centre had a number of D&T kits students could put together. Everything was done in a methodical, step by step serial way with a guaranteed finished outcome. Source materials and manufacturing costs were crucial to the smooth working of the department and its outreach into schools.

Roll forwards a couple of years and the 3D tech is now becoming more common in schools but still a bit of a rarity. Talking with Chris and Charlotte it became apparent that several elements needed to come together to prove the worth of newer engineering, design and tech systems and those successes are very much based on the use of social as well as technological factors. Factors at work above and beyond the school gates that nevertheless begin to seep through into educational practice.


I approached Cinter because of their involvement with STEM and as I am a STEM ambassador I was extremely interested to see how technology like this, and the STEM programme, is developing.

Chris talked about the business 3D Hubs and the idea that printers can be networked – so that anyone who has a design can find their local printer, send them a design and have it printed and delivered.

Charlotte has a mayorial role for the UK 3D printing hub community and she has a very active role in orchestrating and nurturing business and community relationships. Both talk about the nature of using this technology in the community to show aspects of engineering, manufacturing and how some types of learning emerge within that context with that social as well as technological framework. Charlotte’s example of the chair in the video above is just one of many initiatives they have been involved with in the community.

There is no or little research around this because as I pointed out last week quoting Willingham’s article (get it on ERIC) http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ889151 there’s very little to go on in this area.

Willingham states: “Can research provide any guidelines as to which classroom applications are most effective? As you might expect, these technologies are so new that there has been little research on most of them, except for interactive whiteboards and multimedia instruction

One of those two examples was a “top down” initiative – the other done in research labs far away from the days of ubiquitous networked tech, whereas the models I am seeing emerging around social interactions are “bottom up” and, as I have said before, not even on the event horizon of researchers they are so new. By new I mean the elements of the systems have been around for 5 year or more.


Networked technology like this, will, I imagine, prove highly disruptive for schools until tamed and mainstreamed. But maybe it is the nature of top down initiatives that is the problem here denying people agency? 3D networked printing is new(ish), it is definitely not fully mature and as Chris commented “these things don’t fit neatly into a textbook…” But what is interesting in this case is that here is a mainstream engineering and design business reaching out to the community and using social and technological innovation as an introduction to manufacturing. The models of social interaction are possibly being augmented by the technology and thereby changing the way we do things. Whether this has an effect on education is something that needs to be explored by researchers but isn’t. It can’t be it’s moving so fast.

This is far from the Technological Zealots painted by some commentators in the mainstream media… This is real people in real businesses working in the wider world beyond the confines of school or academia but working at grass roots level to bind their services into the communities they serve. The traditional model presented at big trade shows like BETT is beginning to change in small but powerful ways. I tend to think business has a lot to offer education and teachers. I suspect that the relationship between teachers and business at this level in examples like Cinter is a more symbiotic one and the notion that “big business” is co-opting IT zealots to use as a channel into education might rapidly become an outmoded model. Certainly I think there is a debate worth having but not in a facile, kneejerk, tabloid way. For example I would like to see a number of education voices at this event http://makerfaireelephantandcastle.com/2015/10/07/join-the-maker-community-at-maker-assembly/ and may well attend to see what the lie of the land is in that respect.


Two years ago I looked into the Maker Communities and the informal education model emerging in this country, for a podcast – you can read/listen/watch that here http://www.l4l.co.uk/?p=3032. The raspberry pi was about to launch and whole communities of “makers” inside and outside the school confines were beginning to spring up.


Alliances like CAS, BCS and STEM and others worked together to convince government to reboot the ICT curriculum.

People like Alan O’Donohoe (@teknoteacher) have made great contributions to breaking down the barriers between home and school learning in these areas – his work has been vital in showing how computing and tech can bring together people socially in large scale learning events. https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/raspberry-jam-at-the-national-stem-centre-york-saturday-8th-june-2013/

But these models are so new and most teachers will be resistant. Techno-zealotry or people with immense expertise in their subject? Certainly a lot of families turn up to these events and are inspired to take learning further.


By now everyone is fairly familiar with the amazing inroads 3D printing is making in the area of prosthetics. Years ago, if you had a prosthetic limb and it broke you had to wait weeks for a replacement – often a one size fits all one from the factory. Now there are stories like the one in the film below.

As Chris and Charlotte point out – 3D printing has certain elements in the process of manufacture that makes it ideal for specific purposes. Quick design to manufacture. Rapid prototyping and scaling. Marry this with smarter social networks and hubs then you start to see a culture of change happening in society.

We need businesses like Cinter and individuals like Alan O’Donohoe to protoype, design and build effective systems for the future – and I’m not just talking about the tech!

As Daniel T. Willingham writes:

“If a new piece of technology is placed in your classroom with the expectation that you will use it, take advantage of online teacher communities. … there is not a research based list of best practices for the use of new technologies. The best ideas for how to teach with interactive whiteboards, clickers, social networking software, and other new technologies will come from teachers. Happily, the teachers who are enthusiastic early adopters of technology are also the ones who are likely to share their ideas with their colleagues via the Internet”

Whether this impinges on mainstream schooling has yet to be seen. Meanwhile remember the human elements and watch the film below. (I will be adding to this blog next week with further media).

We will also be having an online video debate on Thursday 26th November on http://blab.im/eyebeams on the subject of Will Technology Transform Education?.

Kieran's Hand from Pier 9 on Vimeo.

Posted on by leoncych in Uncategorized

One Response to 3D Printing. Stem. Networked Technologies & Educational Change

  1. leoncych

    I am using comments for addendums and further links on these topics – here is an interesting Pan-African STEM project http://3dprint.com/99010/robotics-competition-africa/