Unchained with Open Source: Michigan Tech 3D Printing Course Teaches Students to Build 3D Printers 


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logo (1)Hats off to Michigan Tech, and Dr. Joshua Pearce, for creating such a unique course that comes full circle in teaching their undergraduate engineering students about the world of 3D printing in a new and comprehensive way. Thrusting engineering students not only into the world of 3D design and 3D printing, they immediately enter the open-source world of the growing ‘maker community’ as well.

The progressive new engineering course, created last fall and taught by Dr. Pearce, is called ‘Open Source 3D Printing,’ and on inception was offered to 50 students. Filled to capacity quickly, students obviously had no qualms about paying the $500 course fee to cover all the components they would need to build their own MOST Delta RepRap 3D printers.

oneIt’s a classroom system of economics that works for everyone, as the students pay a $500 fee to make and keep their own tools. In a contemporary technology course that could have been cost-prohibitive for both administration and students, Michigan Tech is responsible for the most important part: teaching.

While it might be easy to read about 3D printing and all one can do, especially with building open-source designs, there is definitely a learning curve involved. In Open Source 3D Printing, engineering students go in ready to experience advanced learning in 3D printing technology — and they come out with their own very impressive tools that they can use for a future of innovating.

It’s definitely not your dry, boring traditional college course. The idea is to inspire students with the RepRap concept, which not only employs the open-source model, but introduces one to a worldwide group of fellow makers, innovators — many of whom are already experienced engineers. Students learn the value of controlling their own science labs through building and customizing many of their own tools. They often also turned the learning process around, with homework actually being done in class, and textbook studies being done at home.

With the popularity of 3D printing growing daily, and so many companies reaching out to hire graduates with 3D design and 3D printing skills, it’s not surprising to find that there are now textbooks on the subject. For this course, the classroom relied on Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs, written by the students’ very own Dr. Pearce.

In the course, students learn how helpful 3D printing can be in their labs as they can customize tools to their own needs with 3D printing, and especially in combining electronics with the help of Arduino software and often other items like the Raspberry Pi computer. Dr. Pearce points out how 3D printing can be used to make everything from customized test tube racks and simple mechanical objects to much more advanced items that could, for example, replace a micro-centrifuge.

“This class was the most fun I have had teaching in the last decade, and I think it’s a good model for other universities to borrow,” says Dr. Pearce. “The whole thing from start to finish is free and open source including hardware, software, firmware, syllabus, assignments, and the results. There is no reason that this course could not also be ported to entry-level undergraduates and high school students, as almost all the tools used in the class were new to the majority of students.”

With all of the learning being geared toward the scientist and engineer, students focus on all the aspects of 3D hardware and software, all free and open-source. The student engineers were m1definitely not having their hands held though, as on the second day of their class they were instructed to fill bins with the proper supplied components for the 3D printers they would be building — from home — within three weeks. The challenge was on, and students were allowed to use classroom facilities for some more complex processes that they might not be able to perform at home like soldering and using large amounts of chemicals.

The class followed a blended learning format, meaning students often did design project homework in class and a lot of reading at home. Once they moved past the initial challenge of actually building the tools they would need to create projects, students began with simple tasks like that of designing rock wall holds for both adults and children. Afterward, they were required to share their work as open-source designs so that a whole world of 3D printing enthusiasts who enjoy rock climbing could make their own holds for around one dollar — rather than upward of $50-100 when bought retail.

Tthreeasks became progressively more advanced and challenging as they were separated into learning teams for making true scientific equipment like vortex mixers and customized electrical face plates. The teams also worked with graduate students and had full access to labs. Their work left a legacy, as they made all designs open-source, and now anyone can download and make their own customized face plate for electrical sockets.

Progressing past the legacy of offering customized objects, students set their sights further — toward helping the world with 3D printing. Working with the Appropedia community who takes requests for products to be created in the name of sustainability for developing areas, students honed in on a request from a Cameroon doctor in need of otoscopes. The students responded with a fully functional, open source design for the medical tool.

“They were able to push the machines to their limits (e.g. printing a stethoscope vertically), and if that wasn’t good enough to do what they wanted, they could improve and hack the tools themselves,” says Dr. Pearce.


3D printed otoscope

Students are exposed to the international open-source community that allows for any science lab to have ongoing integrated improvements to any and all projects, which not only allows for the use of highly innovative technology, but shaves thousands of dollars off the budget. Very importantly, the future engineers were given invaluable tools for independence as they moved forward, with open-sourced hardware and open-sourced software like OpenSCAD, Blender, and FreeCAD.

“As a general rule, engineering students are makers, but if you really want them to take the shackles off, they have to have ‘own’ the tools, not just have access to them,” says Dr. Pearce. “This is why it was so important to have the students build, test, troubleshoot, and fix their own printers. They know them intimately — they’re not intimidated by fixing problems, taking them apart, or upgrading them with future 3D printable components.”

Due to the impressiveness of a number of projects, numerous students received not only internships, but great job offers, demonstrating the eagerness of modern manufacturing and technology companies and corporations to hire graduates with skills like the ones learned and refined in Dr. Pearce’s course.

“The results were impressive, and next year’s 3D printers will be an evolved hybrid – a superior 3D printer — in part because of student mods, many of which came from undergrads that started tripping out their machines organically,” said Dr. Pearce.

In Dr. Pearce’s course, the world of not being tethered or tied to a retail source is unleashed for students, not only empowering them in truly creating their own science labs, but also empowering them as individuals with the potential for offering powerful innovation to the world.

Would you be interested in taking a course like this? Tell us about it in the Michigan Tech ‘Open Source 3D Printing’ Course forum thread over at 3DPB.com.

Dr. Joshua Pearce is an Associate Professor in Materials Science & Engineering as well as Electrical & Computer Engineering, and runs the Michigan Tech ‘Open Sustainability Technology (MOST)’  group. He is also the author of the Open Source Lab. If you are interested in seeing instructions and the video that students were given to build their 3D printers, click here. The information was made available by a William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning grant. 

[Source: opensource.com]

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