3D Printing: A New Outlook

I posted yesterday that I was skeptical going into my conference on 3D printing. I was far from convinced this was something my university should be pursuing, and I really wondered if it wasn’t just another flash in the pan that people would explore and then abandon a few years later.

But somehow, and much to my surprise, the conference changed my mind.

It didn’t change my mind about 3D printing (and 3D scanning and drones and augmented reality and virtual reality, which the conference also covered), but rather, it made me see the important space in higher learning that these all occupy. I asked the panel the question I posed in my blog post yesterday: if they didn’t think 3D printing was just the next iteration of Second Life. They were candid in their response, saying that 3D printing might ultimately fade from favor (though they saw real uses for it in the here and now and immediate future).

However, they made a distinction between new technology and how that technology is used in academia. “Scholarly innovation” was a term they used that seemed particularly relevant. The thought that new technology can change the way we approach learning and teaching, as well as change the way we interact with our surroundings. There are major developments happening in technology, and they’re coming so fast that it’s hard to keep up with them all at times.

As I think about it after the fact, it seems to me like technology today is one continuous conversation. And at one point, that conversation was focused on Second Life in part, yes. And though the focus of the conversation has moved on from there, that doesn’t mean that the people who spent time exploring that space and understanding it were wasting their efforts. You can’t isolate one piece of the conversation and say it was ultimately irrelevant. That piece needs to be viewed in context, understanding where it came from and where it led.

Our students deserve a chance to be a part of that conversation. To know what’s happening and to have an influence in the future. True, some of the leads will end up as dead ends, but the learning involved in finding that out won’t be worthless. And some of those leads will end up opening huge new spaces of exploration.

The big key to me was changing my perception from thinking of 3D printing as part of a “Maker Space,” which very well might end up fizzling. Popular now, unpopular five years from now. 20 years ago, the big thing campuses were doing was enabling students to digitize content, making DVDs or editing videos for projects. Today, those efforts seem quaint: it’s so much easier to do it all with no specialty equipment needed. Pioneering efforts in 3D printing might well lead to the same place. The technology is exciting and has a lot of potential.

But those students who were able to use university equipment to digitize content went on to use that experience to vault them into their careers. You don’t end up being a major (or minor) player in the conversation by ignoring it and waiting for something you’re sure will be permanent. You dive in and start talking with others as soon as you can.

Interestingly, many of the schools as the conference were small liberal arts schools with no engineering programs. Heading into it, I’d assumed most of the application of this technology would be for science and engineering majors. Instead, presenters talked about how it brought students from many disciplines together: art, archaeology, science, teaching, education.

So at this point, I’ve shifted from the mindset of a skeptic (“is this really worthwhile”) to a believer. The big question, of course, is “how do I pay for it?” These machines aren’t cheap, after all. But apparently there’s a lot of educational discounts and grants available, and presenters noted that if you get students in particular on your side, you’d be surprised what companies are willing to do to meet student demand.

I’m hopeful my university will be able to get something like this off the ground, and not just because I want to play with the technology. I want our students to have as many opportunities as possible, and “Scholarly Innovations” seem like too important of a conversation to pass up.

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