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This year, I’m creating a new high school engineering program at Pembroke High School. As far as tools go, we’ve got three computer-controlled machines: Roland vinyl cutter, an Epilog laser cutter, and a MakerBot 3D printer.

These ornaments are from the laser cutter. I started with a picture of a horse, since my daughter is really into riding. Then I modified the picture a bit with Gimp and used CutStudio, the software that ships with the vinyl cutter, to trace the lines of contrast. I’ve also used this image to form the basis of a makerbotted cookie cutter, but that’s another project altogether.

The original idea for this technique came from the work of several of my students in the Fashioning Tech class. Sam and Brooke were cutting images that they found online, and saw that the heavy black lines made image contours, which cut as a continuous line. What they saw as a horrible mistake, I thought looked really neat, and suggested they carefully glue the image outline to a backing sheet. They were hand cutting the background sheet, but it looks much more polished if they use the laser to cut the outline shape.

These horse ornament contours were then organized to make a variety of shapes, horse outline, details of face and mane, and the circle. I arranged a 12″ x 24″ sheet of these shapes and cut them on the lasercutter. The contour cut file could also be used to make a sheet of vinyl stickers, as students recently did in Junior Senior STEM class VinylProduct project. After cutting the parts, I brought them home where we glued them together in a variety of combinations.

This project idea snuck up on me, the concept for my particular ornaments showed up on Monday afternoon. I spend most of my afternoons and evenings chasing the various techniques and methods of assembly. In one of my classes, I had some students paint some parts of the school logo ornaments, but the paint really didn’t look right, so that didn’t turn out to be a good way to do it. Spray paint or airbrush would likely look good without being absorbed and distorting the cardboard. I’m not thrilled about introducing cans of spray paint as a high school classroom material, but a well managed airbrush station with good ventilation could work well.

Another way of using this laser cutting assembly idea would be to cut the same images in other materials. One thing I considered was using colored card stock, but there was none to be had. In Capetown, I saw some neat laser cut Jewelry made in the Fab Lab there. Those images were cut in acrylic and in MDF or masonite. With findings, the lasered parts were easily converted to earrings. As a classroom project, this could work out very nicely. With the proper finishing of the objects, they’ll come out nice and polished looking.

Students in my classes initially saw cardboard as a low-grade material, basically trash. They are coming around to some of the positive values that I see in it as a material: cardboard is cheap to source (free on the loading dock or 50 cents a 12 x 24 sheet online), so this allows unlimited revisions, cardboard cuts much quicker and more easily than just about any material of similar thickness. This keeps the cut times way down as compared to acrylic or MDF. Cardboard is a soft material and is therefore forgiving of imperfect dimensioning in the cut designs. Since it’s soft, adjustments can be made with a utility knife instead of requiring the part to be recut.

There is a lot of potential in this project, and it’s very exciting to see what amazing solutions my students are coming up with as they experiment with powerful tools for design and fabrication.

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.


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