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March 11, 2014

Massachusetts High School Brings 3D Printing to AP Physics

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

For those who have never been on the receiving end of an advanced placement (AP) course, these are commonly the most rigorous courses that a high school curriculum can toss into play. Frequently accepted for college credit when scored above a certain level, these classes are audited by College Board authorities and those involved in said classes represent a school's best students in the subject of choice. But for Pittsfield's St. Joseph's Central High School, AP means more than just tougher homework: it means 3D printing as well.

As part of St. Joseph's AP physics class, students are incorporating 3D printing into the regular lesson plan. A recent advanced math formula lesson, for example, got the students calculating center of mass, and then designing toy figures accordingly that could balance on a finger without falling over. The students then turned to computer aided design (CAD) programs to create models of the figures in question, and the models were turned into real-life figures using a combination of the 3D printer and what teacher Bridget Gormalley refers to as “Lego plastic.” The students then set out to balance the figures on a finger.

With each student turning to a different figure—everything from rocket ships to dead mice—the end result was a wildly creative affair that had a serious mathematical underbelly thanks to the use of center of mass computations. These are difficult by most any reckoning, especially so for high school students, so the affair, as Gormalley described “...ended up being trial and error.” Calculations are done in centimeters as opposed to inches, and even the design of the toys in question played a factor as the students settled on forms that were better likely to balance. The project took about two weeks to finish, and some “glitches with the software” hampered some efforts.

But the 3D printer—which cost a reported $800, raised from booster club efforts—isn't just helping in AP physics classes. Gormalley also teaches anatomy and biology courses, and has put the 3D printer to work making models of human body parts, much like a move recently used to great effect at Kosair Children's Hospital when a model of a human heart was made to perform heart surgery on an infant. What's more, Gormalley also teaches environmental science for freshmen, and will be putting the 3D printer to work on making wind turbine blades for a section on the subject.

The use of hands-on learning techniques is often one that allows the subject to stick with the student long after the lesson is done, and science classes are excellent places for such hands-on demonstrations. My own high school physics teacher used to turn to such methods to show off basic science concepts—he made his own videos—and these I still remember despite my high school days being well past. With the prices of 3D printers rapidly in decline thanks to improvements in construction and more competing models emerging, the idea that one day we will all be able to print our own wind turbine blades or just about anything else isn't so outlandish, a development that itself has a host of implications for wider society and economics as we know the fields today.

Still, one thing is clear: this AP physics class is putting 3D printing to work in a powerful way, and a way that may well prove to catch on at schools well beyond this one.




Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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