November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Illinois Public Library Partners with Middle School on Eighth Grade Maker Program

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An eighth grader from Thomas Middle School in Arlington, IL, presents his project from the 3-D modeling class at the Arlington Heights Public Library. All photos courtesy of Arlington Heights Memorial Library

One evening in late January, 50 or so parents and teachers gathered at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library (AHML), located outside of Chicago, for a high-tech presentation courtesy of 29 eighth graders from Thomas Middle School in Arlington, IL. In groups, the students—who had recently completed a nine-week elective course that centered on 3-D printing, research, and design—presented their final projects to the audience.

Tasked with creating an entirely new product or redesigning an existing one, the students showed off their inventions. Projects included take-apart scissor handles that could be reconfigured for both right- and left-hand users and a Velcro strap designed for astronauts to strap their books down in zero gravity.

“You could tell from the presentations that they were so interested in this technology,” said Tom Spicer, the teen services supervisor at AHML who helped the students design their projects using Tinkercad, an online design application, and print them on a MakerBot 3-D printer. “Seeing their ideas realized in a tangible form was the coolest part for them.”

The ability for students to physically hold their designs was “a pretty powerful moment,” agreed James Grant, Thomas Middle School’s industrial technology teacher who created the maker class, titled “3-D RD,” and taught it in collaboration with AHML.

Creating a class devoted to 3-D printing required a series of unconventional events to get the course off the ground.

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Another eighth grader from James Grant’s “3-D RD” class presents her project on 3-D jewelry.

It all started in the summer of 2013, when Trixie Dantis, a teen librarian at AHML, reached out to local 3-D professionals in the community and arranged for them to come in to the library and teach a class for teenagers about emerging technology. During the half-day session, Jesse DePinto, CEO and cofounder of the engineering firm Voxel Metric, scanned and rendered 3-D models of the teenagers’ heads, while Andrew Morrison, founder of the maker space Workshop 88, was on hand to demo his MakerBot Replicator 2, which he used to print the 3-D heads.

That fall, upon returning to Thomas Middle School, a few of the teenagers who had participated in the session mentioned the experience to Grant. They expressed real interest in learning more, which set the wheels turning in Grant’s head: Why not, he thought, team up with the library in order to allow the kids to learn more about 3-D printing?

He scheduled a meeting with Spicer, who runs the teen program at Arlington Library, and together the pair assembled a possible lesson plan. With the tentative partnership already in place, Spicer applied for and won a grant from Arlington’s own Friends of the Library program, a not-for-profit organization that raises funds to provide equipment for the library, allowing him to purchase two MakerBot printers.

The library’s preexisting partnership with the middle school was crucial to its ability to get funding, because “it helped show Friends of the Library that we were going to help support local education,” Spicer says. “You don’t want to have technology just to have technology.”

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Parents listen as eighth graders present their projects.

Together, in preparation for Grant’s class, Spicer and the library staff watched 3-D printing tutorials and practiced using the printers so they could help the students use the equipment.

While organizing a class in conjunction with the middle school wasn’t easy—it required in-depth communication between the library and school staff, multiple meetings, and the scheduling of “two field trips during school hours, and two separate assignments,” Spicer recommends that more libraries take on the challenge. As the students learned to use the technology, you could see “a spark” ignite, he says. “It was great to see how much time and energy they put into their projects.”

Librarians and teachers who are considering a similar partnership “should just do it,” Grant added. In his experience, there are plenty of available grants that will provide the funding for schools or libraries to invest in equipment such as 3-D software and printers.

The class was such a success that Grant will partner with the library to teach the elective again next fall.

“I saw several students who were like, ‘I thought of this, and now I’m holding it in my hand!’” he said. “I pulled a project out of one of the machines, and it was an amazing feeling, the realization that just a day or two before, this was in a kid’s imagination. That’s pretty powerful.”


Laura Entis is a staff writer for Entrepreneur.com where she covers tech, startups and business psychology. She has also written for Psychology Today, The Hollywood Reporter and Bklynr.com.

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