In 2013, I was splitting my time between running Sleek and Destroy out of my apartment in Brooklyn, and getting absolutely covered in 3d printing dust at Dr. Jim Bredt’s lab while hacking on my first experiments in soft robotics. While one one of those journeys up to Somerville to print, Tess Aquarium pinged to see whether I’d be available to teach a class on digital fabrication and toys at NUVU. I was excited about the opportunity. Also, I was terrified that I’d be creating a summer’s worth of curriculum and teaching a group of eleven students ranging between age 11 and 16 in just a couple of weeks.
The plan I came up with was to start with deconstructing toys, teach some CAD tools, give the students the basics for prototyping with digital tools, and end up with a pretty well resolved final project that was a toy of their own creation. That plan broadly worked, but I also had to do a lot of learning and bootstrapping along the way.
My biggest challenge was the age spread. I had two students who were sincerely excited to learn Solidworks and 3d printing. I had two students who were frustrated by the pace of lectures and wanted to spend as much time as possible learning hands-on tools like the sewing machine. I addressed this by asking NUVU to bring in Tess to spend time with the students who needed the most individual attention, and break up the class into groups based on their interests.
Having everyone learn some basic prototyping and come up with their own take on a toy was a useful exercise to learn their interests and perspective. It helped me chunk them up into groups that could have a shared goal. One group chose to develop a toy airplane launcher. Another chose to build a spring-loaded blaster. One group chose to make a world of toys that could tell a story together. The remaining group chose to develop a 3d puzzle based on mechanisms they invented over the course of the class.
Another takeaway from the class was how much more approachable laser cutting was as a fabrication tool than 3d printing. I wasn’t able to get my students far enough in learning 3d CAD tools to design objects for the 3d printer at NUVU. However, within an hour of introducing them to Illustrator, my class was lining up to put their own projects on the laser. For the printed components that made it into their final projects, I had to oversee the design and printing process pretty diligently. Above, you can see a selection of experiments students made in understanding the laser and then prototyping their own toys.
I was especially excited about the progress Owen and Walker made on developing sophisticated prototypes with digital fabrication tools. Their small team built several different iterations of 3d puzzles using mechanisms they developed themselves. I feel that, although they didn’t produce a full prototype of their final design, they made the most progress throughout the class and demonstrated an understanding of core skills that will pay off throughout their life – problem solving, fabrication, iteration, and teamwork.