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Researchers Explore Collaborative Learning Potential of 3D Printing Pens

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As a result of the pandemic, children have seen their lives upended more than probably any other demographic category. Granted that it has, of course, changed everyone’s lives dramatically, nonetheless, remote jobs were quite prevalent before Covid-19; and most adults have at least some experience with being blindsided by some crisis and then having to adapt. On the other hand, remote education only rarely existed for college students before the first quarantine, and Zoom learning is a whole entity-unto-itself compared to previous versions of online school.

With this context at the forefront of their thinking, a team of researchers from the Information Systems Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), created a project that tests the potential of collaborative distance learning for elementary school-aged children. Using 3D printing pens to make a multimedia interactive storybook about ecology and climate change facilitated creative verbal and visual collaboration at a distance. Moreover, using tactile and audio representations with narrative elements provides new ways to reflect on complex topics.

Each member of the team used a 3Doodler (top) to make things like the “Snake” character pictured on the bottom

The team of five, including two undergrads, two graduate students, and a faculty advisor, presented its findings at the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) 24th conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), held virtually. Over three-and-a-half months, the team met remotely a dozen times (about an hour each session) for brainstorming, in addition to working on the project individually in between sessions and exchanging their progress with one another on a shared Google Drive folder. Each team member used a 3Doodler pen, the most successful product in the field, and a set of multicolored PLA spools.

The book’s narrative involved a character going through four different habitats — arctic, tundra, jungle, and desert — to show how different environmental zones might be affected by climate change, with each of the students on the team being responsible for a different habitat. Once the team finished its book, it introduced the project in a video meeting to a local climate change, and bird ecology after-school club made up of ten older elementary school students and middle schoolers. Three months later, the team had another session with the three educator observers who participated in the first session to garner more general feedback on the project.

One of the forest pages made by the UMBC team for an interactive storybook project.

One of the forest pages made by the UMBC team for an interactive storybook project. Image courtesy of University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Although the researchers all agreed that one limitation of this initial study was not being able to get direct feedback or data from children, the work they’ve already done shows promising signs that should compel future researchers to do exactly that in other studies along the same lines. The potential for more interactive, more creative education inherent in 3D printing has long been touted, and the UMBC team — along with other researchers who they were in part inspired by — has shown that this potential may be greatest in education related to broader social issues.

Considering how difficult it is to develop collaborative curricula in a remote learning setting, interactive approaches that allow students to make things together at a distance may be one solution. In addition, I’m sure teachers frustrated by the awkwardness of Zoom education will welcome anything that makes their students willing to be more engaged over video chat!

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