The 3-D way to learn

3-D printing puts lessons in science, art and literacy into the hands of students at Perkins School for the Blind

A girl holds white bumpy sphere the size of a plum in the palm of her hand

Students in Kate Fraser's science class use 3-D printed models to learn about the shape and texture of germs and viruses.

November 3, 2015

Paige, a student in the Secondary Program at Perkins School for the Blind, holds a white bumpy sphere the size of a plum in the palm of her hand. She wraps her fingers around the curves to feel the bumps and crevices, then exclaims, “So…this is what one kind of virus looks like? It feels prickly!"

Paige is holding a 3-D printed model of a rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. Kate Fraser, a Secondary Program teacher, uses it to teach her science class about germs and viruses, a topic that students in nearby public schools are also studying.

“A person with full vision might get information from looking at a picture, but a person with a substantial visual impairment cannot,” Fraser noted. “3-D hands-on models are useful and interesting for everyone, but for someone with a visual impairment they provide much-needed information about the shape and texture of an object.”

The virus model and other tactile items for Fraser’s science class are printed by Betsey Sennott, Perkins’ adaptive instructor, using Perkins’ MakerBot Replicator 2X 3-D Printer. The printer, about the size of a microwave, stands on a desk in Sennott’s office, taking up little space and making little noise.

“The process from start to finish can be quite simple or really complex, depending on what you want to print,” Sennott said. “If you want to create your own designs from scratch using CAD (computer-aided design) software, it will take a lot longer than if you can find a design model to download online.”

The 3-D printer works by dispensing a plastic called PLA filament through an extruder that moves inside the machine, based on coordinates in the design file. It builds upward, layer upon layer, from the bottom on a glass platform until the item is completed. PLA filament is sold in twelve different colors, allowing items to be printed in multiple colors and color combinations.

That flexibility has made 3-D printed items increasingly popular in classrooms all over Perkins.

Wendy Buckley, a teacher in the Deafblind Program, uses 3-D printed puzzles called Fittle to teach her students braille. A Fittle has embossed braille letters that spell out the name of an object across different pieces. For instance, “F-I-S-H” is printed letter by letter in braille on four puzzle pieces, which, when assembled, form the shape of a fish.

Building the puzzles not only gets her students exciting about learning braille, it also improves their fine motor and problem-solving skills, said Buckley.

“Adding braille letters to a concrete object that the child can manipulate and explore helps to support their concept development,” she said. “It also helps make the connection between the word and its meaning for a blind child.”

Bruce Blakeslee, an art teacher in the Secondary Program, uses 3-D printed models of architecture elements so students can feel the entire 360 degrees around a cathedral column and the elegance of the curves at the top.

Speech-language pathologists Melanie Knight and Colleen McDonald use the 3-D printer to create tangible communication symbols for their students. The symbols allow nonverbal students to communicate by using objects, which they identify by touch, to represent an object or phrase.

In her science class, Fraser is already thinking about future 3-D tactile items she wants to give to students to explain natural objects or scientific concepts.

“Having these models readily available opens up a whole new world to our students,” she said.

Visit WonderBaby.org for information about innovations in vision and blindness that are being made possible by 3-D printing.

How 3D-Printing is bringing the world to the fingertips of students with visual impairments infographic