Innovation Update: 3-D Digital Technology Finds Its Place in the Classroom, and It's Eye-Popping

A California middle school teacher makes imaginative use of cutting-edge design software.

Design the Future, Offered by Autodesk, Provides 3-D Printers to Secondary Schools

Students in Brian Donnelly's class build a machine from a digital model. (Photo: Courtesy of Brian Donnelly)

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The way most students learn the concept of buoyancy involves dropping a chunk of clay into water and watching it sink. The next step is to retrieve the clay, mold it into a boat shape, and watch it float. But that's not how Brian Donnelly's eighth-grade class does it. His students design a boat digitally; then they use a 3-D printer to make a model of it. That's what they put in the water to float.

Sounds like a project only the most well-funded schools could support, but as a teacher in the Unified School District of Davis, Donnelly is participating in the educational initiative Design the Future, offered by the software company Autodesk, which grants all secondary schools in California free access to some of the world's leading 3-D design software for entertainment, manufacturing, engineering, construction, and civil infrastructure.

The free software helps students learn modeling for products and cities, artistic digital sculpting, visualization—which makes digital designs appear more realistic—and simulation. The company also offers curricula, online training, and certification to enable teachers and students to use the software.

“If your goal is to get kids to be thinkers, this new technology can expand their writing and thinking with visuals,” says Donnelly, who also teaches at UC Davis and is writing a book on project-based learning. He believes that middle and high schools should focus as much on emerging technology and hands-on projects as they do on standardized testing. That’s especially true if American kids are to compete with their global peers in STEM (known as STEAM when digital art is included). 

Peggy Snyder, Autodesk’s director of education, says, “We want to get these tools in the hands of students and educators, tools that they couldn’t get because of the cost. We want to help drive the STEM initiatives across the country and across the globe.”

In 2013, the company reached 150 million students and educators worldwide. Snyder says it will exceed that goal this year.

“A lot of teachers aren’t really aware or don't have the confidence in their ability to bring these technologies into the classroom,” Donnelly says. “Once they see and experience what it can be like, it shifts what can happen in schools.”

In Donnelly's lesson on buoyancy, the students designed and 3-D-printed hulls that they could not have created without the hi-tech software. He estimates that it would have taken the kids weeks to do it by hand, if they could have done it at all. "These technologies are potentially giving students a whole different language, a visual language,” he says.

This fitness game, called "Wild Run," was designed by students using software donated by Autodesk.

Donnelly teamed with a physical education teacher on another project in which their middle school students were asked to figure out a way to promote wellness. One group of students created an enclosed tube that modifies conditions for exercising, including landscapes, weather, sound, and scent. Using this, people would no longer have excuses like weather not to exercise. "Wild Run" was the name of another group's project, wherein players competed against an animal on an iPad in an obstacle course projected on the wall. 

Donnelly says these innovative projects generate immense enthusiasm in students. “The kids are so gaga over working with this technology,” he says. “It resonates with what they are doing outside of school. Reading a book outside of school isn’t what their life is about, but technology is.”

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