Improving Education for All Students with 3D Printing

By Benetech, posted on

We are delighted to share that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has awarded Benetech a 2014 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program grant to explore new ways in which 3D printing technology in libraries and museums can be used to improve learning and accessibility in a range of educational contexts.

This grant will help us address a core issue in education: access to spatial concepts that are increasingly important, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Imagine sitting in your high school or college anatomy class, learning about the structure of the inner ear. You open your textbook on the assigned page, read the introductory text, and get ready to work. The only problem is… the images of the inner ear aren’t available to you! And even if they are, the complex twists and turns of the inner ear’s structure are difficult to grasp.

A significant number of educational materials, especially in the STEM disciplines, are heavily visual and complex, and students are asked to gain much of their information from resources such as charts, graphs, diagrams, maps, photographs, and other images. This content poses challenges for students with visual impairments and others who may have difficulty processing visual information. Some of this content is best conveyed with a 3D object that a student can explore tactually. The good news is that the rise of 3D printing as a technology increasingly available to teachers, schools, and their communities now presents a tremendous opportunity to offer all students better ways of understanding spatial concepts.

At Benetech, our Global Literacy Program has been exploring how 3D printing technology can be applied to create accessible educational materials. This exploration has been part of the DIAGRAM Center’s research into technologies that could help make visual content accessible. We are examining various means to that end, including text description, haptic interfaces, tactile graphics, as well as 3D printing.

Based on our preliminary examination, we believe that 3D printing has an enormous potential to significantly improve access to spatial and visual information—and to enhance STEM education for all students. Furthermore, the significant advances made by the library and museum communities in the space of 3D printing and education well position them to become hubs of local 3D printing resources for teachers and students. We are therefore thrilled to have the opportunity to seek new ways in which 3D printing can improve the STEM education landscape with support of a 2014 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Over the next year, we will:

  • Explore how existing and upcoming 3D printing programs in libraries and museums across the country can help overcome technology and resource challenges, so that 3D printing can be applied to improve STEM education for students with disabilities.
  • Create several resources, including a Quick Start Guide for educators and maker spaces, and a small collection of 3D printable models optimized for classroom use.
  • Hold a National Forum on the intersection of 3D printing, libraries and museums, and accessible education. This Forum will bring together over thirty experts in these fields to survey and understand existing efforts, design a partnership model with key stakeholder groups, and propose metrics for additional projects in this area.

We are very excited about the impact this project can achieve. We believe that our multi-pronged approach—including exploring a distributed network of resources in existing community maker spaces, creating a 3D model collection, and providing training resources in 3D printing technology—will help us take a big step towards making 3D models more available, discoverable, and usable in a variety of educational settings. Together with the DIAGRAM community, Benetech has already created a model for effective collaboration that we believe will be of great help as we take on this new initiative.

I look forward to growing our community of stakeholders and advancing better ways to ensure that all students get the educational materials they need to succeed at school and beyond. I hope you join us!