Passion and 3D printers reinvent STEM learning

A 3D printer in action. (Credit: Keith Kissel,

A 3D printer in action. (Credit: Keith Kissel, released under CC BY 2.0)

Do the words “science class” evoke unhappy memories of struggling to memorize arcane facts unrelated to anything in the world you cared about? Did your teacher’s mastery of the science only accentuate how little you knew? If so, take heart.

The future of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education may depend far less on traditional teacher-student hierarchies than on supportive communities of people who have diverse, complementary knowledge and enthusiasms. Knowing how to look up information and to tap into others’ specialties could become the real keys to STEM success. And the hands-on, do-it-yourself culture of the Maker Movement, along with the 3D printers and other tools that animate it, might play a singularly important role in reinventing libraries and schools to work this way.

Those insights and others emerged June 27 during a breakfast panel discussion on improving STEM education during the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in Las Vegas. McGraw-Hill Education’s AccessScience organized and hosted the event and I had the pleasure to moderate it for our two energetic and visionary panelists, Linda W. Braun, youth services manager for the Seattle Public Library, and Mark Hatch, co-founder and CEO of TechShop. (Disclosure: I am the editorial director of AccessScience.)

Unrecognized passions for science

Growth in STEM occupationsAs I noted in my introductory remarks, the critical need for strong STEM education has never been more imperative or self-evident. We live in an era of unparalleled scientific progress, and every moment of our lives as consumers, as workers, as patients, and as citizens brings us into contact with the fruits of science and technology. Scientists, engineers and the like make up only 5 percent of the U.S. workforce but STEM fields are commonly credited with 50 percent or more of the  U.S. economic expansion over the past half century. Job opportunities in STEM fields are expected to grow more quickly than in the economy as a whole. Moreover, a Brookings Institution study in 2013 found that a high level of STEM competence was crucial to roughly 20 percent of all workers (among them, nurses, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics). Thus, the significance of STEM to the economy is inescapably huge.

Linda W. Braun“If anyone had told me 30-something years ago in library school that I would be here today talking about STEM, I would have said no way,” admitted Linda Braun, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association and a co-author of the association’s report The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action, published earlier this year. “I had no interest in science, technology, or engineering. And math? I’ve been told my whole life that I’m awful at math.”

But over her years of working with educational institutions, she came to realize that the value of STEM in education had less to do with teaching accumulated scientific knowledge and more to do with fostering skills for problem solving—and how much those skills could help a broad spectrum of youth, adults, and whole families. That mindset can help people of all ages overcome obstacles in every part of their lives, not just on the job. “It’s the critical thinking, problem solving, and troubleshooting that I think are really at the core of what we in libraries need to support in STEM,” Linda said.

To help students and others get past their fear or dislike for science, Linda strongly favored a connected learning approach. Connected learning encourages people to identify the relevance of STEM topics to things about which they are already personally passionate. In that context, STEM can seem more meaningful and directly valuable, so individuals will be more motivated to learn the associated science. Seen through that lens, everyone has an organic connection to STEM, Linda argued. She cited as an example the subject of a recent profile in The New York Times: a 15-year-old boy outside Los Angeles who has become a celebrated professional chef. “Think of the science, the math, and the technology that go into cooking,” she said. “His STEM skills must be amazing!”

Linda’s comments about the advantages of the connected learning approach struck a chord with me. I mentioned that perhaps because of my family history—my father had been a Navy test pilot and my mother a nurse, and I had grown up surrounded by science books—I had always had the benefit of seeing science and technology as naturally integrated into the rest of life. “I think one of the best gifts we can give young people is the opportunity to see how knowing the science behind the world around us just makes life more wonderful,” I said.

Making a creative connection

This approach to STEM built around personal enthusiasms dovetails with another trend, the rising interest in the Maker Movement—and in equipping libraries to become community centers for Maker activity. The Maker Movement is an extension of traditional DIY hobby craft culture that embraces digital technologies such as 3D printing and robotics. In recent years, some public and school libraries have begun to recast themselves as centers for Maker activity—witness the exhibitors offering Maker products and services that were much in evidence at this year’s ALA. Linda acknowledged that many libraries justify their new Maker facilities by saying they have always done crafts. “But that’s not quite it,” she said, because these activities can be more than a creative outlet and source of recreation: they offer a practical way to connect serious STEM education to users’ passions.

Mark Hatch“I like to say that the largest untapped resource on the planet is not natural gas or solar. It’s the creative potential of the human mind,” said Mark Hatch, author of The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers (published by McGraw-Hill Education). His company TechShop establishes centers where people can get the training and access to tools and software they need to realize their Maker dreams. (On June 17 when President Obama made a public statement about his administration’s support for STEM, he did it in the Pittsburgh TechShop.)

Maker technologies are easier to learn and use than they have ever been, Mark argued, so in principle it should be possible to introduce them at younger ages and get more people involved with STEM. “It’s very inspiring when you’re a kid to be able to turn an idea in your head into a real, working thing you can show to your friends, “ he said. Hands-on explorations are particularly good for the third of the population that learns best by doing, not just studying. The practical skills that students acquire would be relevant both to those headed to college and to trade schools. And thanks to the Internet, he added, it has never been easier for novices to find the expertise they need in online communities of those with shared interests.

The catch is that too many people disqualify themselves early from STEM careers because they don’t think they have science or math skills or don’t see the relevance to their interests. Mark cited the statistic that according to a recent national survey, only about 13 percent of engineers in the U.S. are women (National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators, page 3-5). “That is an absolute, unmitigated disaster,” he said. “We can’t leave those brains on the sidelines and expect to solve the problems of the future.”

Beyond STEM education curricula

I asked whether there was any empirical proof that involvement with Maker activities translates into greater academic achievement or involvement with STEM vocations. Mark and Linda acknowledged that such evidence may still be hard to come by (partly because the Maker movement might be too young for a clear trend to have yet emerged). Anecdotes abound, however, about students and others inexperienced in design, inventing, or handicrafts using 3D printers, Arduino programming kits, and computerized cutting tools as springboards to new careers.

One noteworthy case was a team of students at Stanford University who in 2007 developed the prototype for a low-cost baby-warming cocoon to fight hypothermia in premature babies, who cannot adequately maintain their body temperature. Among the 20 million low-birth weight born each year, hypothermia is a leading cause of death, particularly in the developing world where access to incubators is typically poor. (See, for example, this PLOS ONE paper on the management of neonatal hypothermia in Zambia.) The Stanford students conceived of a tiny sleeping bag that self-regulates its temperature through polymer chemistry to keep a swaddled baby safely and consistently warm. After graduation, the students further developed the invention and launched the organization Embrace to manufacture and distribute it. Their Infant Warmer is already credited with saving 60,000 lives, Mark said, and Embrace co-founders Jane Chen and Rahul Panicker were hailed by the World Economic Forum in Davos as Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2013.

Mark also pointed to the GE Garages program, through which GE sponsors traveling exhibits and workshops that introduce laser cutting, 3D printing, welding, and other manufacturing technologies to tens of thousands of children. Seeing the tools in action is often enough to win converts. He described laser cutters, which can now be controlled by software developed for first graders, as “easy to use, amazingly powerful, and incredibly addictive.” He added, “If we were to introduce more kids to laser cutters and 3D printers, trust me, we would have a lot more engineers coming out the other end.”

In the schools and libraries where passion-driven connected learning and Maker activities are already being offered, they seem mostly to be supplemental, informal learning opportunities. As inspiring as these were, I noted, building them into formalized curricula that would work reliably within a school calendar might be tricky. “Yes, this is all enrichment now,” Linda agreed, but said that many educators were working on trying to make it more mainstream. She cited the example of a math teacher who is trying to get a class on programming with Scratch (a simple multimedia authoring tool) accepted for his school’s math requirement, since it offers a connected way of showing how mathematics can be used.

The problem that he was encountering, she said, was that the push for Common Core national education standards was making it hard to innovate. Linda’s comments elicited a sympathetic response from the panel’s audience, some of whom volunteered that they, too, had seen their schools’ industrial arts and home economics programs (and the associated tool resources) displaced in favor of a more focused Common Core emphasis on English and math.

Self-doubt and letting go

Yet an even more immediately limiting problem might be that, as Linda observed, many librarians lack confidence in their ability to support STEM learning that is less structured and more individualized. Helping librarians become more comfortable with it, and with the more diverse range of library users who would seek to benefit from it, has become a central focus of her own work.

STEM panel

The STEM education panel, with me at left. (Photo: Steve Chapman)

I asked her how she coaches educators past this self-doubt. To start, she said, most of them needed to reimagine what their job entails: they do not need to be proxy experts on every subject. Librarians should recognize that their own knowledge (or ignorance) of science and technology matters far less than their understanding of how and where to look for relevant STEM answers. She suggested that public libraries might consider seeking out partnerships with academic institutions that have experienced science librarians and specialists who could mentor their public library colleagues about unfamiliar STEM resources and ways to use them.

To motivate librarians to cultivate this approach to STEM, personal passions might be the key, just as it is for students. Find subjects that excite individual librarians and introduce the accessibility of STEM in that context, Linda advised: “You need to give them that opportunity to make it their own.”

Overcoming that initial reluctance is similarly a challenge for the introduction of 3D printers, laser-cutting tools, design software, and other tools, all of which can come with significant, ongoing maintenance requirements. Mark emphasized, however, that librarians need not know how to use the tools expertly themselves: instead, they can open up that role to the community. “Bring in volunteers who would love to use and help others use this stuff,” he said. “Don’t try to do it all yourself.”

Linda and Mark’s comments stimulated a vigorous dialogue with the audience. I was particularly struck by the story of one librarian from Arizona whose library served a population of 6,000, of whom almost 40 percent were below the poverty line. The library had brought in LEGO project kits and a 3D printer and put them into the hands of the children. One in particular had applied herself to learning about the printer, started running workshops for the other children, and had recently started a business based on it.

Listening to such stories, I had an epiphany on the dais. Schools and libraries constantly run inventories on their physical assets, I said, “but nobody ever inventories their assets to include the intellectual resources and enthusiasms of the audience they serve.” It only showed how deeply engrained the factory model for education was, in which students are treated as materials to be molded by the system, as opposed to a more communal model where students were encouraged to enrich the teachers and schools, too.

That new social model for library services—one built on shared community know-how and peer-to-peer mentoring, with librarians acting as facilitators of the conversation rather than experts—may be the most revolutionary (and unsettling) aspect of these changes for most library professionals. Yet in principle, it may not be so great a departure from librarians’ traditional mission. “I talk about librarians as connectors, which we have always been,” Linda said. “But we have to work with library schools to get more people thinking about this the way we are here.”

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