America Makes Finishes Pilot Program of Virtual 3D Printing Education for Middle Schoolers

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Youngstown, Ohio-based America Makes, the Department of Defense’s national manufacturing innovation institute for AM, is the country’s foremost public-private partnership for AM technology and education. Managed by the not-for-profit National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), members of the organization work together to speed up the adoption of AM through project calls, challenges, writing standards and guides, and holding educational programming in order to train the future AM workforce. America Makes recently completed the pilot of a new virtual AM education program, which is aimed at middle school students and was funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act through the Manufacturing USA National Emergency Assistance Program.

The program is meant to expose middle school students, who are typically between the ages of 11-14, to 3D printing, and prepare them for future career opportunities in the industry.

“Exposing students to 3D printing must go well beyond the widget approach of a teacher downloading a file and giving it to the students to send to a 3D printer. Students need much more depth than this to take advantage of future 3D printing career opportunities,” explained Josh Cramer, America Makes Education & Workforce Development Director. “They need instruction on additive technologies and processes that engages them to synthesize the information and certifies their understanding.”

The virtual America Makes middle school program is meant to help the young students begin building what the organization calls “career pathways and talent pipelines,” which will eventually be necessary for skilled AM industry jobs. Participants can earn mini-badges, which are the main parts of America Makes’ K-to-Grey Superhighway programming for career development and pathways to credentials. This middle school program aligns to other programs that have been aimed at high school students, post-secondary education students, and incumbent workers.

The pilot was developed by America Makes, Bull City Learning, MxD Learn, and Fab Lab Hub, LLC, an America Makes member and part of the International Fab Lab Network; it also hosts the full AM badges. The program includes 11 micro-learning modules, which feature several short, interactive lessons to help introduce students to the basics of the technology.

“These [micro-learning modules] equip students with the foundational knowledge and understanding to build additive competency and experience at a younger age and provide an aligned path to continue to build on that knowledge by earning full digital additive badges that have been built through Institute-led activities. For schools interested in the program, there’s an added bonus,” Cramer continued. “America Makes is so committed to this education and workforce development initiative that the Institute will be making this program available at no cost to schools and students under partnership agreements.”

Dade County Middle School students present the 3D printed parts for NASA and the Space Station as part of the NASA HUNCH program. Image courtesy of Shenea Hill/Dade County Middle School, Georgia.

Many times over the years, we’ve seen middle school-aged students learn about 3D printing in class, and successfully use what they’ve learned to make a real world difference. So this educational program seems like a pretty great way to prepare kids for future engineering and AM careers, while also having fun.

The pilot programs by America Makes were rolled out to member middle schools and Fab Labs that are part of the national New Collar Network nonprofit organization, which is part of the Fab Lab Network and was founded at MIT’s Center of Bits and Atoms. Participants include:

  • Dayton Regional STEM School, Dayton, OH
  • Fab Lab El Paso, El Paso, TX
  • Fab Lab Hub, Santa Fe, NM, in collaboration with the Santa Fe Indian School
  • Fab Lab Tulsa, Tulsa, OK
  • The Gregory School, Tucson, AZ
  • The 3D Printing Store, in collaboration with Aurora CO Middle School, Denver, CO

So far, the feedback from the participating schools and Fab Labs has been pretty positive.

“Teaching with these modules felt like having a co-teacher, someone who could connect with the students at their level,” said Dennis Conner, Director of the Fab Lab at the Gregory School. “We were able to quickly engage with creating a 3D model while having many discussions about the changing world of 3D printing.”

America Makes believes that the middle school program will likely be available to school districts nationwide by late this summer.

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