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Local 3D firm develops printer-based curriculum

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Business owner Kim Brand posed a question to a crowd of mostly elderly listeners.

“They all laughed when I said, ‘How many of you took shop classes?’ They all raised their hands,” Brand said. “I said, ‘How many of you have grandkids who are in shop classes?’ Nobody raised their hands. Nobody. We’ve abandoned what I think is a sort of deep, DNA capacity to tinker.”

Brand’s Indianapolis-based company, 3D Parts Manufacturing, responded to a lack of interest in engineering and manufacturing by working with Indianapolis area teachers to incorporate 3D printers into classroom lessons as a way to promote interest in technology and engineering among students.

3D Parts also intends to make money off the curriculum by offering maintenance services on the printers that go into schools.

Advocates consider 3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing” or “rapid prototyping,” to be the next major wave of life-changing technology, possibly on par with the personal computer revolution.

The company’s educational project comes as the White House pushes STEM education, including a mentoring program in which Indianapolis will participate.

3D Parts and the teachers it is working with dubbed their program “Masters of the Universe.” The logic behind the name is that engineering can create virtually anything, otherwise giving them “mastery of the universe,” Brand said.

“When I was 8 years old, I wanted to fly. And I think the standard answer was ‘No, you can’t fly,’” he said. “But you know what the answer is today? ‘Yes. That is called aeronautical engineering, and here’s how you get there.’”

3D Parts is giving two printers to each of the eight schools or school districts it is working with: Cardinal Ritter High School, Raymond Park Middle School, Carmel Middle School, H.L. Harshman Middle School, Little Flower Catholic School, the Indiana Math and Science Academy, South Bend Career Academy, and North Daviess Community School Corp. in southern Indiana.

The company handed over the machines and let teachers and students see what they could come up with.

That meant building parts for bottle rockets in Susan Reagin’s class at Raymond Park.

The machines draw students’ attentions because the kids can walk away with something tangible, rather than just lecture notes about computer-aided design software, said Reagin, who teaches computer applications and engineering technology.

“It makes it real-life to them,” she said.

The curriculum project isn’t entirely about altruism for 3D Parts. There is money to be made on the idea.

3D Parts plans to maintain the machines for about $400 per month. Schools currently in the program are receiving grants through TechPoint, an Indiana technology advocacy group, to fund the maintainance.

The curriculum is also part of a new business strategy for eight-employee 3D Parts, which launched in early 2013. The company is giving away printers today, but it will eventually sell them.

Machine sales will likely break even, Brand hopes. But maintaining the printers should generate profit.

The company sets its sights on providing maintenance services as it expects to see 3D printer labs become as common as computer labs today, Brand said.

But in order to get there, schools need to embrace a curriculum with 3D printers.

The “curriculum team” is pooling input from Reagin and the other teachers to figure out what works in classrooms.

3D Parts also tapped insights from technology education consultant David Thornburg, who developed a set of school lessons that use the printers.

Thornburg said he tailored lessons to math and science teachers at a time a lot of states are beginning to mandate that schools teach engineering.

“I realized how panicked some folks can be because of this, simply because ‘Wow, this is going to be mandated?’” he said. "This isn’t as scary as it needs to be. Halfway to engineering is tinkering.”

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