Aug 09 2011

Building Blocks

Digital fabrication systems can spark student creativity and interest in STEM careers.

Digital fabrication may be the next technological innovation to influence education. The emergence of affordable, computer-controlled fabrication systems in recent years lets students of all ages engage in engineering-like processes that may deepen their understanding of math and science concepts.

Using 3D modeling software, cardstock (or other media), color printers and portable 2D fabricators, students can move between digital and analog learning models. The iterative process and transition from digital to physical representations that result from this rich, highly creative problem-solving activity can do much to foster students' enthusiasm for learning and for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Teachers at The Lovett School were eager to incorporate digital fabrication into their middle school math and science curricula. But they also wanted to engage students in a project-based learning experience that would:

  • support the development of problem-solving skills;
  • build a foundation for their understanding of ratio and proportion; and
  • incorporate emerging technology.

Lesson Description

This lesson unfolded during a workshop on digital fabrication and project-based learning that was designed by Willy Kjellstrom, a doctoral student working with Dr. Glen L. Bull, professor of instructional technology and co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education in the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. It is composed of the following phases:

Discovery: Through classroom discussion, have students identify a community issue that requires a physical solution. (In a later phase, they will build a model of their solution using digital fabrication systems.)

At Lovett, students chose as their issue the limited cell phone connectivity on school grounds.

Research: Next, ask students to research solutions to their problem.

Among the solutions Lovett students proposed during this phase was constructing a cell phone tower on campus. They identified a variety of sizes and appearances of towers that would be suitable for the location they had in mind.

Design Challenge: Challenge the class to design and fabricate a prototype solution. Assign each student a partner with whom he or she must brainstorm and design their prototype. Be sure to outline the outcomes (that is, the grading rubric) upon which they will be measured.

During this phase, students should contend with a materials constraint (the amount of cardstock that can be used in their model, for example); a size constraint (the model must scale to an object of appropriate size and proportion); a visual constraint (it must be aesthetically appealing); and a time constraint.

Modeling and Design: Now, have students use modeling software to develop 3D models of their solutions. Digital models must be viewable as 3D objects and as correlated 2D representations, or “shape nets.”

Students should develop the aesthetic look and feel of their objects using the design images available in the modeling software or by importing images from other sources.

Printing and Fabricating: Have students print their 2D shape nets on cardstock using a color inkjet or laser printer. They should then use the modeling software and carrier sheets to control a fabricator (most likely connected via a USB port), which perforates and cuts the cardstock into the shape nets. (Carrier sheets are plastic mats with an adhesive coating on one side. They are used to protect the blade and hold the cardstock in place as it's being cut.)

When that's done, students should separate the shape nets from the carrier sheets and construct their 3D models, using glue or tape to secure the ends.

Evaluation: Next, ask students to evaluate their physical model by comparing it to their digital rendering and to the actual object they are modeling. Be sure to measure scale and proportion and, if time permits, allow students to revise their models as needed.

Presentation: Finally, have students present their ideas, processes and the ratio they used in designing an appropriate scale model. As a class, measure and assess the physical models that were created.

Subject Area

Designed for upper elementary and middle school students, this project-based lesson plan incorporates online research, understanding of ratio and proportion, collaboration, problem solving, creativity and presentation skills. It is relevant for a variety of subjects, most notably science, engineering and math.

Curriculum Standards

This learning activity provides the context the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) calls for in its new Curriculum Standards for Grades 5–8 by offering a problem situation that “establishes the need for new ideas and motivates students” and that seeks to “emphasize the application of mathematics to real-world problems … relevant to middle school students.”

The lesson also fulfills the call to integrate technology and involves many of the 13 strands of mathematics enumerated by NCTM. These include mathematics as problem solving; mathematics as communication; mathematics as reasoning; mathematical connections; number and number relationships; computation and estimation; and geometry and measurement.


Grading Rubric

Students should be assessed based on their demonstrations of mastery in seven areas:

  • use of manipulatives;
  • creativity and aesthetic;
  • use of scale to determine height;
  • collaboration;
  • presentation;
  • placement of solution; and
  • model's height as a percentage of the greatest possible height relative to the physical solution's actual size.

Teaching Tips

  • Engage students in the discovery process.
  • Emphasize to students that design constraints (especially material ones) matter. Such limitations must be factored into the solution.
  • Build in extra time to accommodate technology issues and the iterative process.