A Czech school’s story of engaging students in the hands-on world of 3D printing.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Engaged students, creating students — are motivated students. That’s the premise of 3D printing for education from Y Soft, a provider of intelligent enterprise office solutions that build smarter businesses and schools, and empower students to be more productive and creative. With headquarters in the Czech Republic, they employ over 300 dedicated people, serve more than 14,000 customers and do business in more than 120 countries. Founded in 2000, the privately held company acquired be3D in 2014, and continues to lead the way in simple-to-use 3D technology, the sort that has found an easy home in Prosek, a Secondary Technical School in the Czech Republic. Officials there had a goal to leverage 3D printing so graduating students had the design and computer skills to meet employer’s needs. With the determination of Lukas Prochazka, Deputy Headmaster (pictured, left), they continued to look for the perfect way to use 3D printing technology beginning in 2011 when they purchased their first printer. In 2015, they came even closer to reaching their goal, creating a special classroom equipped with 15 YSoft be3D 3D printers and opened it up to students and teachers. Finally, they were able to fully integrate 3D printing with their own general four-year curriculum. They then added a course on 3D printing not only as an individual subject, but also as a complementary technology to improve the interactivity of lessons in other subjects like CAD or Machine Construction. Most of the printed projects were used towards student graduation requirements. Today, Y Soft and the school keep the classroom open for other school teachers in Prague, so they might learn to use 3D printing in their curriculum. Here, Lukas shares their story in hopes of inspiring other educators well beyond their country to gain insights, get ideas, and to ‘get practical’ about learning.
Your school implemented a 3D printer program in 2010, which apparently, for whatever reasons, did not work out. So what made you want to bring it back in 2015? What changed your mind?
Lukas: It wasn’t like the program failed. In 2010, we purchased our first 3D printer with SLM (Selective Laser Melting) technology and started to practically use it in the education process. We printed one predefined model with a student, and then they tried to design and print their own. Early on, we found this particular technology too cost-demanding for such an approach—we couldn’t afford to let each student print more than one small model—and found it contradictory to an iterative, project-based education. Then we moved to FFF/FDM technology with much friendlier costs. That helped to make 3DP more accessible to students and raised their interest in using the technology even in graduation projects. Then, capacity problems emerged; with one FFF/FDM and one SLM printer, we were unable to satisfy the demand.
I define success as long-term cross-subject usage of the technology with high relevancy to curriculum.
So, we came up with an idea to set up one classroom equipped with an entire fleet of printers. At that same time, upon positive evaluation of the influence the technology had on students, we started to change our education program to focus more on prototyping and to integrate this into more subjects. In total, the process took us six years before we found the most functional way for using 3D printing in our school.
It’s interesting that doing simple things like placing a printer on each student’s desk and leaving them out all the time could make such a huge difference between success and failure. Whose decision was it to not lock up the printers? Was that a big fight, a real challenge?
Lukas: Now it’s different – printers are in a separate part of the classroom for noise reduction and keeping accessibility to others even during classes. But the important thing was keeping the technology as accessible as possible — that was the key focus, even in prior years when the classroom went through different setups. The decision for this approach was driven from my side but formally was a result of my discussion with school management that was open to it. Accessibility is important for several reasons. Eliminating barriers in process, communication etc., goes towards students’ curiosity. It helps to stimulate students will to self-study and supports tech integration across different subjects. It also enables students to use printers for graduation projects as they don’t depend on certain opening hours or certain personnel to be on place. Of course, there are issues connected to such an approach. Keeping printers clean, for example, students forget to clean the print bed after the job is done; switching off others students’ print jobs to avoid waiting for a free printer; monitoring costs. Part of these were solved by implementing new technology for 3D print management. Other issues such as keeping printers clean are still being faced. But it’s really about communication with students.
I imagine boosting student morale is key. How did integrating a working 3D printing program excite the students? Was it ‘making cool stuff’ or that here was something new? Where did the energy boost come from exactly?
Lukas: It’s hard to point to one concrete factor that would motivate them. For some, it’s the encounter with a completely new technology that, with even minimal effort, allows them to create. For others, it was the fact that now they are able to prove their concepts, and adjust them easily and quickly if they don’t work out. A big success was that, students who didn’t experience 3D printing in education so far used the opportunity to try it —from their first days in school — and very quickly learned how to model and print simple objects. This helped them substantially in CAD based subjects. For some, 3D printers were adopted as complementary technology in their hobbies – they started to combine the technology with construction kits like LEGO and electronics (Arduino).
What did they make? Any real-world solutions or more along the line of toys?
Lukas: A functional turbine model with engine. Teaching aid: explaining regulation automation (3D printed modular cones, plus fan, plus ball that levitates). Automated road-junction model – a teaching aid for programming education. Their own 3D printer (Delta type) with 3D printed components. Today our curriculum contains different projects and objects: cell phone covers, covers for electricity sockets, accessories for MTB frame (fork, suspension, breaks) that are tested on a real bike.
Very impressive! Any students use this experience to get an internship? Did this deeper learning with all this help them land a job?
Lukas: A student that created the Delta printer after graduation used his skills in a company that distributes 3D printers in the Czech market – his job was to service them and help install them for customers. At the same time, he became a part of our teachers’ team in Prosek.
Should schools interested in integrating more technology into their curriculum set up a dedicated 3D printing lab? If so, what’s the first step?
Lukas: What I see today among my Czech colleagues is buying a 3D printer without any plan how to use it effectively. Before any school decides to invest money into this equipment, it is crucial to be absolutely clear about their expectations for deploying the technology—complementary technology for different subjects? Tool for graduation projects? This will depend mainly on the overall focus of the school. Then they need to develop a plan for integration: which subjects will use printers? how it will effect the curriculum of those subjects? Based on that, the school can estimate the needed capacity. When those things are solved, then the school has a pretty good idea about 3D printing technology, the number of printers, and the level of accessibility. That means there is no universal solution — a similar 3D printing lab like we have in Prosek might work for some schools; others will find that a different setting is more appropriate.
Why did you decide to go with the particular type of printers you chose?
Lukas: As for FFF/FDM technology, I’ve addressed this previously. SLM is great for those who want to print complex models with different colors but I consider it not suitable for education and not only because of the high price of material. First, complex models that can be created only with a SLM printer are not good for technical education. With those you show to students that anything can be printed but that is not how it works in real life – for mass production (with very few exceptions) 3D printing is still not effective (regarding costs and time). We want to use 3D printers as an enabling technology for more effective and enjoyable education of subjects like the construction of machines. And for that FFF/FDM is more than sufficient while cost friendly. As for real 3D printing models: accessibility outweighs the demands for sturdiness and construction quality. For that reason, we always preferred a closed 3D printer model built mostly form high quality metal parts. The flexible service availability was also important for us. Last but not least we preferred a Czech manufacturer to show students that anyone can come up with great innovations regardless of the country, which they come from. And the YSoft be3D eDee solution that we are using now helps us to administrate, manage and secure printing effectively while not compromising on our commitment to accessibility.
What are your thoughts on education these days? What makes you say that?
Lukas: I can speak mainly about the situation in Czech Republic. What our education system copes with the most is an insufficient amount of teachers. The average age of the teaching staff in schools of all types is rising and interest in a career in education has been decreasing constantly for last two decades—mainly because of salary conditions that are not adequate to the demands of the job.
From the perspective of modern technologies, the accessibility for schools is good. However, two problems are blocking technology adoption. First there is – in general and with exceptions – a low willingness to cooperate and transfer the know-how of deploying those technologies in curriculum effectively. The other problem is related to the above-mentioned undersized staff in schools. In order to keep up with the tempo of new technology development, new teachers acquainted with those technologies are necessary.
What are your thoughts on technology’s role in education?
Lukas: Using as actual as possible technologies in school is very important because they determine to a substantial measure the skills the student will need for his or her job in the near future. However, technologies by themselves are not panaceas. What is even more important is if the school and teachers have actually some strategy for using the technology in classes. First, the thing is that if used incorrectly their effect could be detrimental for students as it could give them an incorrect idea about how things work in real life. 3D printing might be a good example – if used in its full potential, students might come to the conclusion that any object, regardless of size, shape or complexity is printable. So they would not think about problems like, “if I design this object that would be made of such components how hard would be to assemble it? Would it work as intended after I put all pieces together?” But thinking this way is what employers are expecting so they are sure that their products could be actually made. So in the case of 3D printing, I focus for example on their ability to help quickly realize and verify prototyping projects when thinking how I can use the technology in classes. A second reason that makes the strategy more important than the technology itself, is success of deployment. I define success as long-term cross-subject usage of the technology with high relevancy to curriculum. And I believe that without the proper strategy that is widely agreed on within the education institution prior to acquiring new technology, you can’t reach that success.
What are a few trends regarding technology in education that you are looking at, some technologies to watch in the next few years? Why those?
Lukas: Honestly, this is quite a hard question for me to answer. On a general level, I see efforts to secure the most current technologies that are now used and that students will work with once they enter their professional life. My experience is connected to a technical education category where, in recent years, different construction kits were massively used. Their value regarding acquiring practical skills is usually very low, so currently schools are trying to change them for real industrial devices which students can use (e.g. CNC machines, 3D printers, etc.). In the near future, I expect the implementation of complex automated systems connected to IT infrastructure to allow simulation of current industrial environments.
Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org