STEM Students Use 3D Printing and Artificial Intelligence to Bring History to Life

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stem-school-academy-logoIt’s always more fun to learn about history when the lesson is interactive; at least I think so. We put on little skits in elementary school when we learned about the history of individual states (I remember using a bag of cotton balls to decorate the floor, as I had one of the southern states), and practiced writing our names in hieroglyphics during an Egyptian unit. We all dressed up as pioneers, complete with lunches packed in pails, when we visited a nearby historic one-room schoolhouse, and built models of castles when we learned about medieval times. These days, what could be more interactive than students bringing their creations to life through 3D printing – and combining 3D printing with artificial intelligence? Students at the technology-focused STEM School and Academy in Colorado got to do just that, when their teacher challenged them to give historical figures a voice.

The glowing eyes of the robotic head of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

The glowing eyes of the robotic head of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

“I wanted to bring history alive,” STEM School and Academy history teacher Owen Cegielski explained. “I wanted the students to experience the process of talking to an artificial intelligence, talking to a person long deceased. I wanted the students to become scientists and experiment and invent and create something new. We had no clear-cut plan. It was just a mad invention experimentation.”

He wanted his students to bring history to life through problem-solving, robotics, artificial intelligence, and critical thinking. While they still have to follow the College Board’s AP World History curriculum and learn about World War I the traditional way, Cegielski recently challenged them with a “historical what-if question” and asked if it was possible to prevent the war through artificial intelligence. The students were originally going to make a computer character of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor and provocateur of WWI, but after a joke was made about talking heads, it was determined that the Kaiser would instead become a disembodied head, through 3D printing.

3dp_guide_flashforge_finderOne student team worked on coding the questions they would pose to the Kaiser, while a second created the head, using rubber-based clay for details like his hair, eyebrows, and teeth. The tiny, talking head itself was created on the school’s 3D printer; from the looks of a Global News video, it appears to be a Flashforge Finder, which was developed specifically for kids and released in early 2015. The AI personality was designed using bot software from api.ai, and the head, complete with green and red flashing eyes, was mounted onto a Google Home Assistant; the mouth moves mostly in sync with its AI programming. An open-source Arduino connects with the AI personality, and allows the head, essentially a database of historical facts, to move.

The students researched the causes of WWI to know how to program the head. It will answer questions with different levels of emotion – depending on what questions it’s asked, the head will answer agreeably, or in a more frustrated tone of voice. If students ask questions that make the robotic Kaiser happy, it leans toward peace. But if you ask questions that make it angry, such as who his mother was (Kaiser Wilhelm II did not enjoy a good mother-son relationship), he might just make a declaration of war.

Sophomore Zach Swaim starts the computer program that runs the artificial intelligence head of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It speaks through Google Home.

Sophomore Zach Swaim starts the computer program that runs the artificial intelligence head of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It speaks through Google Home.

Sophomore Michal Bodzianowski, who led the design team, explained, “You either get closer to declaring war if you anger him, or getting closer to declaring peace if you try to pacify him.”

You can check out the 3D printed Kaiser head’s emotions in this video:


Cegielski said, “They actually were able to program temperament. When these kids were challenged, there really was no stopping them. I believe this is an exciting breakthrough in education. This is a whole new way of learning bringing artificial intelligence, coding into any discipline.”

In recreating this historic figure, Cegielski wanted his students to get engaged, and be able to develop a sense of empathy for the man by interacting with the robotic figure, and not just reading about him in a book. Cegielski can really think outside the box and use non-traditional teaching methods at the STEM school, and he’s always honest with his students about introducing new lessons, and the challenges that may arise from trying something new. He helped teach his students that you learn the most through failing, then revising and improving.

History teacher Owen Cegielski (left) confers with sophomore Michal Bodzianowski, who led the design team, about coding the robot using the apai.ai software.

History teacher Owen Cegielski (L) confers with sophomore Michal Bodzianowski, who led the design team, about coding the robot using the apai.ai software.

Cegielski explained, “I look at history like a science experiment. And I will tell the class, ‘We’ve never used this software before, we’ve never used this technology before. I don’t think it’s been done anywhere, and will you please basically try and jump off the cliff with me for a little while and see if we can make this work?”

However, we still live in a world where state tests and worksheets exist, and projects like the 3D printed Kaiser head can take up a lot of class time, which means students will have to spend more time studying at home and less at school. But Cegielski’s students don’t seem to mind this too much, and jumped right on board with what he has dubbed “STEMified history.”

“History isn’t being able to memorize and label off a bunch of things that happened. It’s being able to look at the evidence presented and then say, ‘OK this must have been the underlying cause, this must have been what we could have done to help,'” said student Keith Hedlund.

The students may eventually create talking, 3D printed heads of other world leaders, like Czar Nicholas II or Woodrow Wilson. Discuss in the STEM forum at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: Global News, Colorado Public Radio / Images: Colorado Public Radio]


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