LEARNING BY TOUCHING: 3D Printing for Education

By Prof Henry Thairu Chair of the Commission for University Education, and Director of Consultancy Services, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya.

Early this year, the BBC ran a headline story by the Director of the OECD’s Directorate of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, titled ‘China opens a new university every week’. At this rate China is set to overtake the total number of graduates in the Western world and perhaps in the rest of the world.

This change is not only in the numbers but also in the type and quality of education. The preferred subjects are STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects with 40% of the graduates in 2013 having completed their studies in STEM subjects. Recent years have witnessed nearly a million PhDs in STEM being awarded each year in China. The bar is higher for the new graduates as new thresholds are awaiting them in the world of innovation and technological advancement. The graduates are trained for high value, high earning jobs requiring high skills and are required to equip themselves with the new skills the future market wants them to have.

The mismatch of skills with the jobs on the market is a serious issue around the globe: In the US, 83% of manufacturers recently reported an overall shortage of qualified employees. The story is not different for Africa. A survey of experts in 36 countries for the 2012 Africa Economic Outlook found out that 54% of the respondents identify the skills mismatch as a major obstacle for business. Citing the survey, Betty Maina, former CEO of the Kenyan Association of Manufacturers (KAM) pointed out that the mismatch of skills is a persistent challenge to Kenyan manufacturing. She added that ‘university graduates do not have the right skill mix to drive competitiveness for the country at large’. It is this scenario that the Chinese are tackling head-on. Besides the all important transition to high value manufacturing, China’s focus on education is aimed at pre-empting similar scenarios of a mismatch of skills and jobs. Their new graduates will have familiarised themselves with a universe of technologies that their immediate forebears couldn’t even have imagined. 3D Printing or additive manufacturing is among these technologies that China is teaching its next generation work force. The plan is to offer 3D Printing lessons and services in early education starting this year with the installation of the printers in each of the more than 400,000 elementary schools in China. Similar plans are underway in other countries too. The UK is rolling out these lessons for 8 year olds while the US has started to offer them in middle and high schools. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MEN - TOR) program, has provided 3D printers to more than 1,000 high schools breaking with tradition that kept 3D printing as a preserve of higher education in the US. A similar trend is observed in Kenya where some elementary and high schools are experimenting with 3D Printers as teaching aids. The introduction of 3D Printing tech to schools is revolutionising education in a big way. The technology as a general purpose technology has a huge variety of applications in schools. As one commentator puts it: ‘The application of this technology is only limited by the ambition of the teacher and the creativity of the students — and there’s no cap on either of those things here.’ The applications of 3D Printing with the most profound impact in education is as pedagogical tools. 3D Printing is bringing tactile, touch and feel experience to pupils and students on subject matters ranging from mathematical formulas to biological processes, from chemical formulas to physics theories. Subjects that were once too abstract to understand can now be reduced to concrete solid models that learners can explore and examine using additional sensory powers. This is no small feat and its tremendous impact has yet to be fully appreciated. While it is no new experience that technology is oftentimes ‘crash landing’ in schools and dazzling educators, the advent of 3Dprinters in schools is certainly ushering in a profound revolution in education. Computers in schools are a familiar scene in OECD countries. How - ever, the results achieved as a result of the deployment of computers in the learning –teaching process is ‘at best mixed’ according to Andreas Schleicher, who led the 2015 OECD report, Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connections. The re - port’s finding is deeply disconcerting given the huge investments made on ICTs for schools even in non-OECD countries: The report says there are ‘no appreciable improvements’ in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information technology. Countries providing greater access to computers are not performing better than those whose students have relatively limited access to computers. 3D Printing is the perfect complement to existing digital learning tools and is expected to rectify what has gone wrong with schools that are failing to deliver results despite the ease and availability of technology and internet access. 3D printing could help ‘make the connections’ as it will liberate those ideas, concepts, diagrams, models and designs that have hitherto been imprisoned be - hind the computer screen and that were mainly and essentially experienced as a little more than digital trompe-l’oeil. In their article entitled Illustrating Mathematics Using 3D Printers, Oliver Knill and Elizabeth Slavkovsky identify 3D printing as ‘the latest piece in a chain of visualization techniques’. They argue that despite the huge array of applications that enable highly enhanced visualisations, ‘the possibility to manipulate an object with our bare hands is still unmatched. Knill and Slavkovsky also observe that ‘[v]isualization is especially crucial for education and can lead to new insight’. This finds no better evidence than in the case of visually challenged persons. 3D printing is of particular importance for the visually challenged persons who cannot use printed or digital text or pictorial representations of concepts. The blind can now ‘see’ Mona Lisa thanks to a 3D printed relief of the masterpiece that can be experienced using the tactile sense.

The applications of 3D Printing with the most profound impact in education is as pedagogical tools.     

Illustrations in books are coming to life with richer details in their 3D printed enhanced versions. The benefits of 3D printing to the visually impaired also extend to those with learning disabilities and even those without disabilities and the wider public at large. Educators have long realised not only that ‘technologies allow us to do old jobs in new ways’, but also ‘that they can be used to help us do things in education that were heretofore impossible.’ Educating the wider public in either formal or informal education is made easier with 3D printing. The disposition that mathematics or physics is too hard to communicate could be tackled using 3D printed models and it can be made more accessible to the public and this may in turn reverse the decline in enrollment levels in STEM education. The urgency of stimulating students to take up STEM subjects is observed in both developing and developed countries. Among the measures employed in the developed countries is encouraging students through advertising campaigns. Advertising and appealing to students to enroll in STEM subjects may not do the trick as it does not bode well with the continual volley of news about mass layoffs, factory closures and outsourcing of jobs that the global manufacturing sector has seen recently. Even where one decides to ignore or otherwise downplay the impact of these depressing events, encouraging enrollment in STEM subjects remains a challenge due to the deep-seated perception that these subjects are difficult. 3D printing has the potential to change this perception by providing a hands on experience to learners from early education all the way to higher education. The perception of learners would take a turn for the better when they see what they thought was too abstract come to life turning abstract theories practical, and making conceptual models touchable and testable. As pedagogical tools, 3D printers will help in expanding the imaginations of students. With the freedom to innovate afforded by the technology, learners will not be constrained by equipment and materials that do not allow them make whatever they imagine. The constraints with cardboard or paper mash models can no longer inhibit the creative drives of students who can now manipulate their models on the screen and test it with a printed model in their palms. It is rightly observed that 3D printing is ‘giving students extraordinary levels of motivation and the opportunity to exercise their imaginations’. With time and as prices for printer feedstocks come down, students can test their ideas by printing models as many times as they wish. This capability will boost their confidence by allaying fears of failure. On top of this, they can collaborate on the design of what they want to print with any one on earth irrespective of the location where they live. Sharing the files of their designs with someone at the other end of the earth and collaborating on project work is indeed an extraordinary opportunity that 3D Printing offers. The benefits of 3D printing for education cannot be exhaustively listed for the simple reason that the benefits to be drawn from the technology depend on the imagination of the users of the technology. However, there is one use of the technology that is worth mentioning here because of the immediate relevance to developing countries. Laboratories in developing countries are either poorly equipped or totally non-existent. The cost of lab equipment and running labs is prohibitive for schools and universities in many developing countries. 3D Printing could alleviate and eventually do away with this problem as labs can print their equipment at a fraction of the cost of purchasing them. From beakers to measuring jugs from goggles to spare parts for the more sophisticated instruments, schools and universities can have them printed off their computers. This possibility was demonstrated to the world when the University of Nairobi students captured the attention of global media with their project to turn the labour ward in Kenyatta Hospital from an equipment graveyard to a life-saving fully-functioning facility. They have shown to the world that parts for incubators, examination lights, and vacuum delivery and phototherapy machines could be fabricated at low cost to keep the labour ward up and running. There is a lesson for labs in developing countries that are not functioning due to the lack of spare parts for broken equipment. The cheaper and efficient way is to scan the broken part and print it. And for this to happen, developing countries need to invest in skills development. The relatively low capital outlays required for acquisition of 3D printers should enable developing countries to focus their investments on skills development in 3D printing.

The benefits of 3D printing for education cannot be exhaustively listed for the simple reason that the benefits to be drawn from the technology depend on the imagination of the users of the technology.