BCS uses 3D printers to teach students

BALDWIN — Baldwin Community Schools has a little piece of the future sitting in two of its classrooms: a pair of 3D printers which the district have been introducing into its classes this year.

A 3D printer uses a digital design on a computer and then uses a general use material, usually a type of plastic, to create a real life model of that design. One of the two machines is operated by math teacher Robert Brintnall, who put the printer together last July.

"It's got a tremendous wow-factor for the kids," explained Brintnall. "I try to focus on the math aspects of it. The students can pull up designs on the web or even design their own. We do so much work in class on x and y coordinates because two dimensions are easy to portray on paper, but the real world is in three dimensions, x, y and z. This makes the printer a perfect demonstration of using math in the real world."

Brintnall says thus far the printers have been wildly popular with the students. Having the kids line up for a turn to use it is not unusual, and Brintnall has had students who would never stay after school on a project do just that to get some more time in exploring what the machines are capable of doing.

The two machines came out of a teaching workshop from the summer attended by Brintnall and fellow Baldwin Community Schools teacher Karen Alberts. The printers were assembled by the teachers under the guidance of experts with the equipment.

"It wasn't the plan for one district to have two machines like this," said Brintnall. "It was a happy accident when I came to work here this year and both myself and Ms. Alberts had one from the program this summer. It works out well, though. She teaches middle school and I teach high school, so the students can get a lot of experience working with this kind of technology across a long stretch of their school career."

The machine works by feeding a spool of filament through the machine. The filament is then melted into a fine stream and squirted out the nozzle of the printer, which shapes the melted material into whatever shape the computer design tells it to.

"It uses filament as the material for creating whatever you are printing and it works like an industrial strength glue gun melting the filament into a three dimensional shape," explained Brintnall. "It runs off a server at Michigan Tech University which has the actual software and item designs on it. We use a computer here as a control panel and the printer does the rest. Each of the three arms has a finely tuned motor which it uses to lay the filament in whatever shape you need."

These specific printers were designed to be used by schools. They are relatively simple to construct and were created with materials which are easy to repair or replace. Some of the components can even be created by the 3D printer itself.

Brintnall says he wants to move beyond simply using it as a novelty and ensure students are learning about the technology which makes it all possible and the math behind it all.

"The next challenge is to find ways to integrate it into the curriculum," he said. "I have a tech math class this is perfect for. We can look at designs for printed materials and try to adjust the specifications of products, for example. This would be a great manufacturing or engineering problem the kids could solve."

There has been concern in the media since the inception of 3D printers that children could use the technology to create dangerous items, including firearms. While Brintnall admits it is possible with this technology, the models in the Baldwin schools are very rudimentary and do not possess the ability to process materials durable or heat resistant enough to create anything dangerous.

"These machines are more for teaching the theory and showing how 3D printers work and can be used," said Brintnall. "In a few years, you may see printers like these in classrooms and businesses all over the country. These machines will help prepare them for what I think is a great example of technology catching up with science fiction."