Convening Communities for Good: On the Frontier of 3D Printing for Accessible Education

By Benetech, posted on

The rise of 3D printing technology and its increasing availability in schools, libraries, and museums presents new opportunities to improve learning and accessibility in a variety of educational contexts. Benetech was therefore delighted to convene the first major national forum of its kind devoted solely to the topic of 3D printing for accessible educational materials.

Held last week at the Tech Museum of innovation in San Jose, the three-day national meeting brought together over forty-five practitioners and end users in the fields of 3D printing technology and services, accessible education, tactile learning modalities, library and museum services, and educational content. The purpose of the meeting was to survey and understand existing efforts at the intersection of 3D printing and education, and identify ways in which makerspaces and 3D printing resources can transform the educational experience of students with disabilities.

3D-printed models provide an affordable alternative to purely visual images and therefore offer students across the widest range of learner variability a tactual mode of understanding spatial concepts. Why is this important? Because a significant number of educational materials, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines, are heavily visual, requiring students to gain much of the information from resources such as charts, graphs, diagrams, maps, photographs, and other images. This content, however, poses challenges for students with visual impairments and others who may have difficulty processing visual information. 3D-printed objects, which can be explored tactually, provide these students with an alternative means to perceiving the content. 3D objects also enable teachers to put in their students’ hands and better understand things that are “too large, too small, too fragile, too valuable/ rare, or too dangerous.”

The national meeting we convened last week was made possible thanks to a 2014 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). IMLS awarded Benetech this grant to identify new ways in which 3D printing technology in libraries and museums can be used to improve learning and accessibility, particularly in STEM disciplines. This 3D Printing for Education project builds upon our DIAGRAM Center’s research into ways in which 3D printing technology can be applied to create accessible educational materials.

With this project, which we are pursuing through both the DIAGRAM Center and Benetech Labs, our goal is to make 3D models more available, discoverable, and usable in conjunction with textbooks and other curricular materials that teachers already use. To that end, we are building a network of collaborators that will help grow and sustain innovative 3D-printed learning tools. The participants at last week’s 3D national meeting represent the wide range of stakeholder communities with which Benetech has formed strong relationships: educators, students, publishers, accessibility experts, technology companies in the 3D printing space and STEM education space, as well as libraries, museums, and makerspaces.

The topics we explored together during the three-day meeting include challenges (technical, resource, and legal) and opportunities in 3D printing of accessible educational materials and in building maker communities; key accessibility gaps in existing technologies and strategies for bridging them; opportunities for collaboration; as well as success measures and how to evaluate progress in the field. The convening concluded with a Design Day, on which a group of designers joined us for a “3D printing hackathon” focused on designing models that will be included in a collection of exemplary STEM 3D printable objects. As this is one of our broader 3D Printing for Education project deliverables, the files of the select models will be optimized for printing to demonstrate and measure the value of 3D-printed objects as tools for accessible STEM education. Check out participants’ photos and posts from the event, and follow the continued conversation on Twitter at #3dA11y.

We’d like to extend our sincere thanks to IMLS for making our 3D Printing for Education project and last week’s national forum possible; to the Tech Museum for hosting us; to all our partners and collaborators whose contributions have made the national meeting a success; and to all the participants for their great engagement and input. Over the coming months, we will share more information about the results of the meeting and of our entire 3D Printing for Education project. Stay tuned for updates via the Benetech Blog and the DIAGRAM Center Blog.