2 AHS teachers build 3D printer

ALPENA – Two Alpena High School teachers recently attended a conference at Michigan Technological University in Houghton-Hancock to learn how to build a 3D printer. The teachers have brought back the printer they constructed, along with a wealth of knowledge and ideas to further educate their students on the possibilities available in the 3D printing world.

Kelly Belew, career and technology teacher, and Kristen Spain, science teacher, applied to attend the conference and were one of only 10 teams across Michigan chosen for the four-day working professional development.

“There were 12 printers made by educators for education at the conference,” Belew said. “We were the only two-female team and we were the first built and the first to print. We wanted to put Alpena on the 3D printer map.”

The teachers were a bit overwhelmed when they first arrived at the conference and were presented with a table full of what looked like 1,000 parts of all different sizes and no instructional booklet.

“It was very challenging but fun,” Belew said. “We followed pictures and some written steps, but we didn’t have step-by-step instructions. We learned so many things. This was not an education we could have purchased somewhere else.”

Running the printer takes practice and knowledge, not only on an engineering level, but software and problem solving as well.

“It’s a learning process,” Spain said. “It’s problem solving. You have an x, y, and now a z axis for height. One of the first things we’d like to do is print parts for another printer. It’s a self replicating printer. There are a few things that need to be purchased, but most parts can be made with the printer.”

The printer can also be used to make lab supplies and other things around the classroom that need to be replaced. Belew plans to use the printer in her visual imaging classes and use it in a creative art application, along with making tools for her class.

Spain said she will be able to make fins for the rockets used in her science classes, along with many tools she replaces yearly because of wear and tear.

The teachers also discussed the possibilities of a curriculum eventually being built around 3D printing with a focus on hands-on engineering.

“The printer makes little things, but they improve our lives, and now we can make them ourselves,” Belew said. “It’s all recycled material we use. We’re taking plastic garbage and turning it into useful items. We’re on the cutting edge with this printer. The more we know, the more we can share with our students.”

The conference really opened up the world of 3D printing for Spain and Belew to apply in their classroom.

“The price for these printers keeps going down,” Belew said. “I think they will change the way we do things, like the way personal computers did. If everyone has a 3D printer, they can manufacture and replicate their own parts and repairs. It’s still in the beginning stages, but has applications from baking to metal work to the medical field. They built a bladder for a mouse with a 3D printer, and it worked.”

Belew and Spain are constantly thinking up new ideas for applications and improvements to the printer.

“We have two people we can bounce ideas off of,” Spain said. “It helps having two people who built it, and makes it easier to fix and ask questions. We have different ideas of what to use it for and how.”

Both teachers are excited for the fall semester to begin so they can implement the printer into their classrooms. “We learned so much that is applicable now, and building it helps us be ready to repair and improve it,” Belew said. “It gave me a jump start for the fall. We’re excited to come back and share what we’ve learned. We’re bringing back something we can use. We’re really thankful our administration believed enough in us to support us in this endeavor.

“It truly leaves you in awe of what’s possible,” she said. “The professor at the conference felt very proud and accomplished of everyone. He referred to all of us as the beginning of something, ‘the pebble that started the avalanche’ he said. Now our students will see what it is and what you can do with this 3D printer.”

The teachers will have their 3D printer at the Back-to-School day at Alpena Mall on Aug. 21, from 3 to 7 p.m., and will be running demonstrations and showing the machine to students and families. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at ngrulke@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.