Printrbot founder Brook Drumm built the first 3D printer kit he purchased (the MakerBot Cupcake) with the help of his two daughters and his son, intentionally involving them in the process. His kids have grown up with 3D printers being common tools in their household. Here he shares with us his insights on how 3D printers open a whole new world of possibilites for kids, and why he believes it’s so important to integrate them into schools.
Generation 3D by Brook Drumm
When I was a kid, I used to follow my dad around asking questions: “Why?” “What for?” “Why?” “What is that?” “How?” “Why?” He had an office in the back of the house full of wonderful gadgets, and he encouraged my desire to take everything apart to see how it ticked. He was always ready to explain what he knew about electronics and machines, which to a young boy sounded like pure magic. Somewhere along the way I acquired a soldering iron and I was in love. Being allowed to ask, explore, tinker, hack, and even fail set me on the course to being a maker.
I’ve carried on the tradition of encouraging my kids to ask questions and explore the healthy stash of electronics and gadgets I collect. Each of my three kids has tackled projects with me one-on-one, but we all converged on our first 3D printer in January 2011. I’d been inspired by the MAKE issue that featured Bre Pettis [of MakerBot, on the cover] and saved up for months to buy my Cupcake 3D printer.
My daughters helped me assemble various parts in the kit and I taught my 6-year-old son, Levi, to solder when it was time to finish the electronics. It was like a rite of passage for me and him! He was both a little scared and excited to be allowed (under close supervision) to yield such a tool. It was obvious to me from the beginning that I needed to design something easier to build, but we eventually got the Cupcake up and printing. The whole family gathered around the kitchen table to watch that mysterious device crank out its first plastic blobs. I’ve believed ever since that 3D printing is a family sport.
That was the beginning of a new way of thinking in the Drumm household. My wife and kids began to see what was possible. They would see something at Target and say, “We can print this!” I started to fix things around the house — kitchen shelves, the washing machine knob, my buddy’s fence, the toilet handle. My two daughters and I printed rings, bracelets, and doodads to hang on their keychains and backpacks. I taught them to use SketchUp, a free 3D modeling program, and let them print what they designed.
Recently, I brought home a Printrbot Jr. and a Printrbot Go to print some Christmas ornaments. It didn’t take long for Levi, now 8 years old, to find a “Dark Vader” lightsaber he wanted to print — with boys, its always weapons! : ) The lightsaber printed flawlessly and is proudly displayed right beside his baseball trophy. Levi is starting to request more and more printed things. In fact, his recent book report incorporated a printed pyramid, a printed sphinx, and a printed replica of the Rosetta Stone! I don’t think he fully realizes the rare air he breathes. I wish I was there when he had to explain to his class what a 3D printer was and how it works.
It’s now normal for him to see printed items on the counter when he gets up in the morning, and I don’t think he gives it a second thought. He regularly pitches his ideas of cars, robots, automated machines, and toy guns that we should design and print. I love that his ideas truly have no bounds. He doesn’t fully grasp the laws of physics, but I think that’s all the better. I absolutely love that he’s grown up believing that you can print and build anything.
The other day he was watching me draw up a new printer design in SketchUp. He had been watching intently for some time and I saw his wheels turning, so I asked him some key abstract questions about the drawing. He rattled off all the right answers immediately. I was shocked. I never formally taught him any of these concepts, but he got it. It dawned on me that the video games he plays are in 3D space from the Wii, the Xbox 360, even the iPad. Computer UI is more and more three-dimensional; he’s growing up in a different world than I did with my 2D scrollers and text-based adventure games on the Commodore 64.
One of the things I love the most about working with kids is that they don’t know the limits of what is possible or what they can do. They have fresh eyes on problems and if they’re curious and passionate, they also have the time to solve problems. Caleb Cotter is such a person. Caleb first showed up to our RepRap meetup group a year and a half ago. He is 15 and a half now, but was 14 at the time. His grandfather would drive him to the meetings and sit in wonder as we all geeked out. Caleb was the youngest one there, his grandpa the oldest.
Caleb had a Cupcake too, so we hit it off right away since we had similar challenges and experiences. It didn’t take long to see he was very bright, self-motivated, articulate, and eager to learn. I remember wondering right off the bat if he would ever consider working with me. As it turns out, he accepted my invitation to show up on the weekends and work with me. For such a young man, he’s certainly gained some unusually rich experiences over the last year or so. We even met the president of Israel and explained 3D printing to him together!
Working with young people is not for everyone. Frankly, you have to be very intentional about teaching and come to grips with the fact that it’ll take more time up front. With patience, I’ve discovered Caleb’s specific talents and passions. Caleb loves to research and design. I try to gently provide clear goals and we work on the designs together. Hearing a fresh perspective is so valuable. I’m convinced the designs turn out stronger when we’re both involved. I asked him last Saturday, “Does it bug you when I nitpick and ask you to do these little perfectionist changes?” His reply was “Ya, kinda.” I laughed pretty hard, but we agree that it’s making him a better designer.
Caleb isn’t the only student to grace Printrbot from time to time. One 12-year-old young man who attends our meetup group asked me almost immediately, “How old do you have to be to start working here?” He told me he was already petitioning his dad to get him a Printrbot for his bar mitzvah. His dad surprised him with a Printrbot Plus for Hanukkah. Watching such a young man learn about 3D printing from the very beginning is exciting! Jake, the son of a close friend, shows up on Saturdays from time to time and now holds the distinction of being the youngest person to run the bot farm. Jake printed Christmas presents for quite a few of his relatives and I couldn’t believe them! He had the patience to hand-color the natural white ABS filament with multi-color Sharpies — for hours on end. The resulting prints where stunning! His teacher became his student. I love it.
Watching young people discover and use this technology is one of the main motivating factors for me. I’m convinced that 3D printers will be in every school soon. I launched my second Kickstarter campaign to promote giving 3D printers to local schools, but it was not successful. Timing played such a huge part of my first campaign, and I think several factors contributed to the timing being wrong on my recent attempt — not the least of which is simply the economic climate in America right now. I remain focused on the goal — a printer in every school and every home. How will we do it? More slowly than I wish we could.
While I feel a real sense of urgency for America’s schools and youth, it takes time to educate adults. Yes, adults. Kids “get” these printers almost immediately and want them. The decision makers in schools and in the lives of these young students are slower to learn and buy into the idea of acquiring a 3D printer. So, we at Printrbot, along with many of you, are on a slow, steady march to educate the young and not-so young. The world is starting to take note.
Marching Orders for a 3D Printing World:
1. Buy a 3D printer of any kind and learn firsthand.
2. Constantly show it off — to neighbors, your kid’s class, teachers, librarians, city officials, anyone with any influence or voice.
3. Start a family-friendly meetup or club. Get students involved if you want to spread interest quickly.
4. Give your printer purpose! Find a cause to put your printers to good use — fix things at school, print gifts for a charity, donate RepRap parts to local schools or interested students.
5. Be a 3D printing ambassador at your local school. This will take effort and some investigative work. Start by talking with the principal and students about what class or teacher is a good fit for this new technology. Prepare to go slowly and be led by the boots on the ground in the local schools. Be open to their ideas and help any way you can. The first wave of early adopters will be tech-savvy teachers who see this new generation of makers already building momentum.
We are changing the world here, so get busy!