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On a visit to Sutherland Middle School in Albemarle County, Virginia, I saw groups of students building a motor out of 3D-printed and laser-cut parts plus coat-hanger wire. Up on the screen at the front of the class was a 3D simulation of the motor. The teacher, Robbie Munsey, explained that the students were re-creating a Page motor, named after its inventor, Charles Graton Page, and that the invention was patented in 1854. “Looking at historical inventions is a way for students to interact with technology and understand it,” says Munsey, who, dissatisfied with the science curriculum, wanted to employ more hands-on learning. A Page motor makes it clear what a motor does and how it works, and actually building it brings this home to students.

Initially, Munsey struggled with hard to obtain supplies for more complex projects. He met Glen Bull, a professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, who was talking about 3D printing (see Make: Volume 41, “The Lab in the Classroom”). “He let me borrow a really old 3D printer,” says Munsey. “Glen said take it home and see what you can do it with it.” He did, and discovered that the printer was the answer to his supply problem. “You could build anything with it, and I noticed the kids were mesmerized by it,” he says.

Bull invited Munsey to join his online graduate class on edtech. The next challenge in that class was to build a telegraph, and it caught Munsey’s interest. On his own, he built the telegraph. Bull was ecstatic. He asked Munsey if he thought 8th grade students could build one. “Absolutely,” Munsey replied, and he recruited an engineering teacher, Eric Bredder, who ran Sutherland’s makerspace, as a collaborator to make it happen.

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Munsey believed that building a telegraph with 3D-printed parts would be practical and meaningful to the students. “I told them that the telegraph was the first text message system ever,” he says. “Modern-day relays are plastic boxes that you can’t open up. Even if you could open them, you wouldn’t understand them. The great thing about these inventions is that we can see how they work.”

Munsey and Bredder gave the students original documents, such as the patent application. Rather than starting with a kit or prepared instructions, students had to learn how it worked and design their own version. They built the telegraph with Autodesk 123D and a new MakerBot. “All of us were surprised by our success,” says Munsey.

Bull was so excited by the work that he suggested they show some people at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The class created a presentation, and “blew them out of the water,” says Munsey. It resulted in a formal collaboration between the University of Virginia, the Smithsonian, and Sutherland Middle School, and led to an NSF grant.

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Later, Bull reached out to Princeton’s Michael Littman, an expert on historical inventions, and he joined the collaboration, with a grad student adding 3D model simulation.

The next challenge was the Page motor. “Tough,” Munsey describes it. “Crazy tough.” But the students succeeded again. “Having built the Page motor, students could learn what’s great about it and what’s not so great about it,” he says. “Then I asked them, what can you do to change it? What would you do to make it better? Can it look even more like the original Page motor?” Munsey was delighted to hear the technical language seep into their conversations — “the commutators have too much friction,” “we’re pulling 3 amps, how do we lower that?” — it was no longer a science project; it became their own project.

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“I never once lectured them on any of this. Not a single direct lesson. It wasn’t me pushing curriculum to them; it was them pulling the knowledge in,” Munsey says. “The power of choice is so incredible.”

“Our kids said that by working with the original inventions and studying what the inventors wrote, they honestly felt connected to inventors like Morse,” Munsey says. “When I pointed out that these famous inventors didn’t fully understand what electricity was, I realized that neither do my students. The innovators and the students have holes in their understanding, and we could talk about that.” They learned about the invention, but also how the minds of inventors work a lot like their own.