Experiential Learning with 3D Printing

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My favorite ride at Disney World has always been Spaceship Earth, the often ignored ride built inside the monumental Epcot ball. It’s an original, one of the few designed by Walt himself. Spaceship Earth is a ride through the history of technology, from the earliest languages to the unimaginable future. Admittedly, this a pretty lame thing for a six-year-old to enjoy, but I’ve loved it since my very first trip to Disney World and, even though I haven’t been there in years, it still inspires me.

Toward the end of the ride, after the roads to Rome and the Guttenberg press, your cart rolls past a scene in which one kid talks to a friend on the opposite side of the world through a large screen. Teachers look over both of their shoulders. From there the cart turns a corner, the inspirational music crescendos, and you soar into the bright lights of “the future.” There are no people here. It is as though, after his 1960’s representation of two kids “Skyping,” even Disney couldn’t imagine what the world might look like. A question hangs in the bright, open space. Hope… an invitation to imagine that which Disney could not. You climb out of your cart knowing that the future is a beautiful place, if only we can conceive of it as such.

That feeling is why I do what I do. That experience. Disney never just made a point; he made you feel a point. That’s the way to tell a story!

This year I’ll be making my first attempt at telling that kind of story.

Last week I stayed with my friends Brett and Matt in Appleton, WI while the three of us ran workshops teaching 3D printing and modeling at a local elementary school. Everyone who’s seen a 3D printer understands that it’s a pretty incredible technology, but until last week I had never noticed that they are also incredibly loud. In fact, they sound a bit like a normal printer hooked up to a megaphone. On Monday morning it had seemed like a wonderful idea to send each child home with his or her very own 3d-printed memento (foxes we decided, for the Franklin Elementary mascot). The kids loved them. By Tuesday night, however, as I attempted to sleep on the couch of Brett and Matt’s tiny apartment while listening to the blaring clanks of the printers transforming strands of plastic into tiny foxes, I felt less enthusiastic. Nonetheless, watching the kids’ faces light up as we passed out the little toys made it worthwhile. I think it also made the technology feel more real to them… an important thing to note, as that, after all, is what 3D printing is all about.

By the end of the week we’d run seven workshops with 124 students. These workshops are the first step in creating something called The Marshmallow Project, “an art and technology tour that uses 3D modeling and printing workshops to foster cultural exchange and enable kids around the world to co-create a shared vision of the future.” Like Disney’s Spaceship Earth, I guess this is my attempt to invite people to imagine a better future… starting with kids.

Today we have access to incredible technologies. The problem is that we haven’t learned how to effectively use them. Technology exists for people to communicate, learn and collaborate with others regardless of their locations. Video calling with tools like Skype and Google Hangout are easy and accessible. Technologies like 3D printing and modeling bridge the gap between the digital and physical worlds, enabling previously inconceivable levels of collaboration. Every “future” invention Disney predicted in Spaceship Earth is technically possible today. So why aren’t they being utilized in our schools?

This is what The Marshmallow Project is about: 1) Discovering better ways to use new technologies, particularly in schools, and 2) Inspiring people to imagine a better tomorrow. Our goal is to understand what’s important about life today by working with kids all over the world so that we can build an art installation that helps people imagine new possibilities for the future.

To start, however, we need to figure out this workshop. The focus is on 3D printing, modeling, scanning and the design process. We made a lot of progress (feel free to check out our notes, if you’re interested), but last week also served as a reminder of just how far we have yet to go. So much to learn! I’m so excited and grateful to be working on a project like this. Please check back for future updates… I think this is going to be a really cool adventure.

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City X Project team at Startup Weekend Transmedia SF
The City X Project at Startup Weekend Transmedia SF
February 5, 2013