3D printing is a cutting-edge technology that can provide unparalleled learning opportunities for young students, and now this technology will be available to Northern Michigan kids who attend Traverse City schools. The 3D Printer Project at Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) will give students access to three MakerBot Replicator 2x Experimental 3D printers. The effort to get 3D printers in Traverse City schools is a collaborative endeavor between TCAPS, RJG, Inc, and Newton’s Road, a Northern Michigan nonprofit located in Traverse City.

The 3D printers are being donated to TCAPS schools by RJG, Inc in partnership with Newton’s Road. According to Bill Myers, the executive director of Newton’s Road, their goal is to communicate the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers to the community, Michigan, and the country.

“[3D printers are useful] in terms of global competitiveness, our kids having brighter and more opportunities in their own careers moving forward, and it helps give kids an understanding of how things work,” he says.

3D printers help to keep America competitive on a global level, but they also help kids conceptualize ideas on a personal level. But according to Mike Groleau, a project manager at RJG Inc, 3D printing is really just a natural extension of the types of games kids are already playing on their computers.

“My son plays Minecraft. In Minecraft, you’re building three-dimensional objects in a virtual world. And my son found there’s an add on to Minecraft called Printcraft. So he made a little creation and you build it just like you would in Minecraft. So it occurred to us that any kid who could play Minecraft could use a 3D printer. We imagined this progressing starting in elementary school and leading through middle school and up through high school. The great thing about it is that if you can design it, you can build it. It’s really only limited by your imagination,” he says.

3D printing is considered to be “disruptive to education,” meaning it alters the current paradigms of education.

“Here’s what makes 3D printing attractive to me. It’s disruptive to education because it is so intuitively-friendly for kids. It gets them creating something,” Myers says.

3D printing works to democratize education. If you can design it, you can create it. It works as an economic driver, too. 3D printing may very well replace some industries because it has the ability to print more than plastic.

“There are people that are printing with food to create various kinds of culinary innovations. There are people that are printing with material that can replace human bone and they’re making parts for skulls. They’re also printing with metallics that can become a part that you actually put into a machine that is a permanent part rather than just a prototype. There’s a lot of it that’s disruptive on a number of levels,” says Myers.

3D printing has the ability to get children who may not be interested in STEM careers at least thinking about them because children are so drawn to these printers. They’re an attractive tool that also feels natural to kids.

“So many kids are already using Minecraft and existing in this virtual world that it’s just a natural extension of something that kids already know how to do. What they design in the virtual world, they can hold in their hand. This is getting kids to think about STEM fields,” Myers says.

Children’s inevitable interest in 3D printing and STEM fields is not only exciting, it’s necessary.

“There’s a skills gap in manufacturing right now. There’s two misconceptions about manufacturing: A) It’s dead. There’s no jobs and there’s no future and B) It’s this dirty work and it’s not particularly glamorous. The 3D printer has an opportunity to change that perception. It’s not the same manufacturing that our parents grew up with. It’s not only the kids’ perceptions we need to change, it’s the parents’. They have that perception in their head, and it’s just not like that anymore,” says Groleau.

For people who are worried that these printers will only leave children distracted, teachers have found very real, tangible ways these printers can fit into the curriculum.

“We brought a group of teachers together and they talked about using this in ways I’ve never imagined. They want to use it for math concepts, like seeing how much water it displaces. It’s useful for a lot of geometrical concepts. They would take objects from a story and print those to make the story more real. There’s art being printed too, which is fabulous. There’s a lot of neat artistic ways to use [the 3D printer],” Groleau says.

3D printers actually mark a return to Traverse City’s manufacturing roots. In the 1940s, John Parsons pioneered numerical control in Traverse City, which, in a way, started the second Industrial Revolution here in the States because it brought computers into the manufacturing world.

“This is a wonderful continuation of that manufacturing legacy. There’s so much potential in this community because it’s so close to the heart of where we came from. Michigan is still a manufacturing state. Manufacturing is still the biggest industry in terms of imports and exports and gross regional product in Northwest Michigan. That surprises a lot of people. 3D printing fits in so well with this. We’re really appreciative of what RJG has done to make it happen,” Myers says.

This 3D printer project has the potential to put Traverse City on the forefront of technology while simultaneously reconnecting with its manufacturing roots. And for Traverse City kids who might not appreciate the significance of this quite yet, it’s just an extension of game time.

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