3D printer generates buzz among eastern Iowa educators - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

3D printer generates buzz among eastern Iowa educators

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

Keystone Area Education Agency's new 3D printer looks to make a big impact on students this fall.

At Dubuque's Grand River Center Tuesday and Wednesday, Keystone and Mississippi Bend Area Education Agencies are co-hosting the third annual Technology Integration in Classrooms conference.

More than 700 eastern Iowa educators are learning about the hottest trends in classroom technology use, and Keystone AEA's new 3D printer, which is no larger than a standard microwave oven, is generating quite a bit of buzz.

"Just seeing what it can do is phenomenal," New Hampton High School principal Sarah Updegraff said Tuesday at the conference.

She is so excited about the 3D printer that she's been exploring buying one for her school.

"We see it as a huge opportunity in pre-engineering fields, especially for our STEM areas -- for science, technology, engineering and math," she said. "We really want to use one in our physics department. Our kids do a lot of models and a lot of bridges to study the physics concepts...and instead of gluing things together, couldn't we be using CAD [computer-aided design] programs and actually making models so they have those skills as they go into the next step?"

More than just models and trinkets, medical professionals are using high-grade 3D printers to create human organs.

"In the world of medicine, that is really a growing piece of research is, 'How can we provide customized body parts for individuals that need them in order to survive?'" Keystone AEA's instructional services director Rhonda Sheeley said. "We also see that even in the area of fashion, 3D printing, you can find online, it's maybe going to transform how our clothing is made."

She said she and others at Keystone AEA first became interested in 3D printing when they read an article several years ago about soldiers in Afghanistan.

"When they needed a part for one of their tanks, they would print the part, and at the time I thought, 'Well, I must've gotten something wrong. You can't print a part that goes into a big tank,' but, indeed, they were doing that," Sheeley said.

Keystone AEA's science consultant Jason Martin-Hiner said Tinkercad, the design program Keystone AEA uses, is very accessible.

"It's mostly a drag-and-drop interface, and you can design as complicated or as simple objects as you want," Martin-Hiner said. "There's nothing like having an actual object to see. It's like, 'I had this vision of something,' but to actually have it created and use it is a whole 'nother story."

Once it has the design, the printer then takes a thermoplastic, aliphatic polyester material called polylactic acid (PLA) that it heats up and uses to print the design, layer by layer.

"It uses a material that's environmentally friendly," Martin-Hiner said. "It's both recyclable and renewable. It's a bioplastic. It's even compostable, so it biodegrades."

A simple design on the 3D printer about the size of a stick of gum takes just over 10 minutes to make.

Speaking with a conference attendee, Martin-Hiner suggested creative classroom uses for the printer.

"A great project for communication as well," he explained, is when "one team builds one gear, another team builds another gear. They have to communicate about how they're going to link together."

He said 3D printers run the price gamut from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Keystone AEA's printer cost $2,200.

"It gives kids a chance to design, come up with something that's unique to them, design it in a 3D modeling software and then actually have the object produced right there for them to use," Martin-Hiner said.

Keystone AEA serves 24 northeast Iowa school districts - both public and private, meaning some 33,000 students will have access to the 3D printer this upcoming school year. Martin-Hiner said the plan is to bring the printer to schools for a several-week stay so interested students and teachers can get some hands-on experience with designing and printing objects.

Keystone AEA leaders said other AEAs are expressing interest in getting a 3D printer, too.

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