So, you’ve purchased a 3D printer for your school and you are on your way. Yet, although you’ve successfully supplied your school with all the key chains, name tags, and Yoda heads they will ever need, and you have begun to incorporate 3D printing into some of your existing units, something still feels like it is missing. At Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts, we have taken some exciting steps toward leveraging students’ interest in 3D printing to unlock their potential to become empowered problem solvers while realizing some of the possibilities that this exciting technology offers.

Solving a Problem with a “Problem Bank”

In July of 2014, we pioneered an initiative that mobilizes individuals throughout our school to create opportunities for our students to engage in authentic and meaningful problem solving. In the Brookwood 3D Design Problem Bank, adults at our school (faculty, maintenance workers, parents, etc.) submit problems in need of a 3D designed solution to a project website where they are categorized and publicly posted. Students from different grades and settings are given the chance to choose problems that resonate with them, and an iterative relationship is created where the child and adult both play a role in defining the problem, brainstorming first steps, and generating gradually improved iterations.

A solution born from the Problem Bank

A solution born from the Problem Bank

In what is truly a win/win/win situation, “problem posters” receive solutions to their design needs, students engage deeply in the engineering process, and everyone connected to our school is provided with a tangible example of the power of the design cycle to transform problems into growth opportunities and students into contributing and engaged community members.

Although we feel that we are at the beginning of this journey, we have begun to receive interest from other schools and organizations looking to set up their own Problem Banks. Our recommendations include guidelines such as:

  • Teach empathy — the more authentic the problem, the more important it is for the student designer to understand the needs of the “problem poster”
  • Educate your community — a greater understanding of the types of problems 3D printing can solve leads to better growth opportunities for students
  • Grow “problem finders” — encouraging adults to be willing to both look for and pass on authentic problems in need of a solution can be challenging but is rewarding for all
  • Start by “getting real” — it is challenging for middle school and elementary students to conceptualize 3D solutions to problems. Prototyping in conventional materials (cardboard, duct tape, modeling clay, etc.) is a critical first step
  • Many iterations = more effective designs — the time needed to 3D print iterations can be a barrier to repeated passes through the design cycle. Requiring students to create and first print “slices” or “footprints” of their designs allows them to confirm the appropriateness of their solutions before committing time, energy, and materials to a full print
  • Mobilize student leaders — enlisting the help of older students to educate adults and classmates, manage design relationships, teach 3D designing, and showcase solutions helps navigate the logistical challenges of the Problem Bank while providing powerful leadership opportunities

Out of the School and into the World

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As this initiative has become more widely embraced by the different constituents in our school, we have started to find ways to use this work to connect our students to their world beyond the school walls. When my colleague, 6th grade science teacher Annie Johnson, proposed using the Problem Bank as a vehicle to connect our students to other individuals and organizations on Boston’s North Shore, I knew we were into some exciting new territory.

Last year, we piloted a program called “D-Zign Girlz” through which we created a design collaboration between a small group of our sixth grade girls and a local seniors’ affordable housing residence in Beverly, MA, called “Harborlight House.” This pilot program was transformative for the students who engaged in some deep empathy work as they endeavored to get to know and understand the lives of a group of seniors. As they shared the ever-improving iterations of their designs to garner feedback they developed deep relationships and friendship with the residents.

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The depth of the cross-generational experiences and the quality of the students’ final designs made it clear that there were many profound learning experiences to be had through this work. This year, we have broadened the project to include all of our sixth grade students, the bulk of the sixth grade team, and several new seniors’ residences.

Personal Challenges and the Genesis of Our Work

Brookwood’s journey to involve our students in “hyper authentic” 3D designing, making, and problem solving began in 2013 when, in spite of the fact that we had no 3D printer, we became one of the first schools to turn the creation of a 3D printed prosthetic into an educational project.

Throughout that school year, I worked alongside a group of my 8th grade students to track down a partner with a printer and produce one of the original 3D devices, the Robohand, for my son Max. When our first printer arrived, three months after Max’s successful use of the student-built prosthetic, we were already so deeply involved in creating real world problem solving experiences for our students that to have gone back to printing trinkets would have seemed like a squandering of the opportunities afforded by this technology.

My son Max

My son Max

In retrospect, it is clear that becoming so deeply involved in this very personal application of 3D printing allowed us to break through a kind of “authenticity barrier” that not only directly led to the creation of the Problem Bank concept but also thrust me and our school into the world of 3D printed assistive devices. I now lead the Enable Community Foundation’s Education initiative, helping to provide schools and students with authentic uses for their printers through the creation of 3D printable prosthetics while striving to create for schools the same set of authentic opportunities that first inspired our students.

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A Global Generation of Empowered Designers

In short, I believe we have truly broken some important ground with this initiative. Students who work on Problem Bank postings begin to see problems more as chances to develop their critical thinking and design skills while adults at our school see students as capable partners in the process of making our school a better place. 3D printing offers an incredibly tangible example of the power of young people to create authentic solutions and I personally believe that every organization with a 3D printer should have an associated Problem Bank. I actually envision a global network of young people becoming collaborative designers and problems finders who share and revel in each others’ problems, challenges, and designs. As we continue to configure Brookwood’s Problem Bank for adoption by other schools (by writing curriculum, providing guidelines for setting up a school Problem Bank, supporting with professional development, etc.) we are also beginning to consider the potential for the Problem Bank to move beyond 3D printing. Once students see themselves as invested problem solvers with the capacity to effect change in their lives and school, in their community, and in the world, the potential seems endless.

Making for Good

The educational benefits of involving students in the “Making for Good” movement are undeniable. But the potential for a generation of makers to move beyond seeing themselves as “tinkerers” and to begin to see themselves as empowered local and global change makers… now this has the makings of a transformative movement. I have seen first hand that a community comprised of members who are prepared to see problems and challenges as growth and empowerment opportunities for young people is a community that grows agents of positive change. Our school’s journey through the use of this emerging technology provides one of an infinite number of models for this work – please contact me if you are interested in knowing more or you have other work to share.
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