Blog Post

Digital Fabrication: M-Cubed

Mitchell Jetten is one of the youngest and most successful shop owners on Shapeways, an open web market for personally designed products. At age 19, Mitchell offers products that build upon his passion: model trains and railroad accessories. His most successful design is a train that is common to the Netherlands, a VIRM 9500 series, and the popularity of his designs earned him nearly $4000 since his SpoorObjecten Shop opened on Shapeways.

Mitchell engages in a process known as digital fabrication when producing his model trains and accessories. Digital fabrication, in its simplest form, involves the creation of a digital design that is then produced in physical form by using specialized hardware. Mitchell uses software that is a mixture of commercial and open source 3D CAD software that resembles Google Sketchup in order to create his railroad accessories. He relies on hardware like 3D printers and CNC machines to translate this digital artifact into something that is physical and tangible. The hardware is not located in a nearby space for Mitchell; he uses Shapeways equipment and web infrastructure to produce, manufacture, market, and sell the designs that he creates.

Although digitally fabricating objects might seem outlandish and inconceivable, millions of people engage in the process on a daily basis. Just look at the mundane and commonplace use of Microsoft Word and the ubiquitous printer. Countless businesspeople, professionals, teachers, and students use this word processing software to type words on a computer. With a connected printer, individuals turn the bits of typed text into something that appears on paper, a tangible reflection that can be held, dispersed, and passed along. The big difference between Mitchell and the everyday printing process is that Mitchell is fabricating 3D objects that have depth, volume, form, and a consistency that is more than just paper.

Regardless of one's awareness of the term or the production of 3D objects, digitally fabricating physical objects is not a new concept. In 2006, Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, gave international communities $20,000 worth of fabrication software and equipment so that local farmers and village people could solved problems that market and technical resources failed to address. The primary users weren't engineers or scientists but individuals with a high degree of curiosity, motivation, and tenaciousness. What was created was remarkable: laypeople developed instrumentation for agriculture production in the country of Ghana and citizens in remote villages in India made steam turbines. Gershenfeld noted that when people were given the power to create rather than consume information, there was a high degree of empowerment, problem solving, and invention. For additional information, check out Gershenfeld's book, Fab.

In the spring of 2010, the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC gave the Fab@School proposal an endorsement by recognizing it with a Digital Media and Learning award. Building on the work of Gershenfeld, the Fab@School proposal aims to connect the digital fabrication process, including easy-to-use software and affordable hardware, to existing K-12 curricular mandates in a manner that engages future Mitchell Jettens to look closely at the science, engineering, and mathematics of futuristic creation. And, unlike other fabrication initiatives, Fab@School's primary focus is on elementary teachers and students, not high school.

Fab@School is about learning, engagement, and creativity at its core, not about the software and equipment. Although important to the success and opportunities in digital fabrication at the K-12 level, the mechanisms for producing physical objects are a means to an end despite the whiz-bang futurism of 3D printers and 2D die-cut machines. The proposals meat is the curriculum that provides alternative ways to address existing standards through creation and design in a manner befitting Seymour Paperts constructionist philosophy: Learning occurs when there is a reconstruction of knowledge through the making of physical objects.

At the end of June, Fab@School investigators tested prototype lessons with middle school students in Albemarle County Public Schools. The students were all participants in a pilot program called M-Cubed, an initiative focused on helping African American middle school boys with algebra readiness. Although not truly project-based learning experiences, the lessons prompted discussion and exploration of algebraic concepts, variables, geometry, volume, and surface area. Sample lessons can be found at the digital fabrication website.

As the unofficial photographer for this experience, I thought that I would share some pictures from M-Cubed 2010. I am also including a video that was created by Daniel Tillman, a colleague who works on the Fab@School project with me. The video was shot after students had only an hour of instructional directions- this shows the ease of the fabrication process.

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