Gather ’round, children and I’ll tell you a tale of how everyone from the ages of 16 to 40 has played Oregon Trail.
Back when Apple was just starting out, [The Steves] thought it would be a good idea to get the Apple II into the hands of schoolchildren across the United States. They did this with educational pricing, getting Apple IIs into newly created ‘computer labs’ in schools across the country. These new computers – from my experience, anyway – were used as a replacement for the old Selectric typewriters, and on rare occasions a machine that played the MECC classics like Oregon Trail.
Fortunately, a few students were bright enough and had teachers who were brave enough to allow BASIC programming, PEEKs and POKEs. This was the start of a computer revolution, a time when grade schoolers would learn a computer wasn’t just a glorified word processor or dysentery machine, but something that would do what you told it to do. For those kids, and I’m sure a few of them are reading this, it was a life changing experience.
Now it appears we’re in the midst of a new revolution. If this horribly named column isn’t enough of a clue, I’m talking about 3D printing. Yesterday, Makerbot announced they were going to fill in for Apple in this physical revolution by trying to get a Makerbot into every school in the country.
You actually think we’re going to say this is a bad thing? Really?
Here’s the skinny on the press conference Makerbot held yesterday: public school teachers (K-12) can register for a Makerbot Academy 3D printing bundle. This starts a project on DonorsChoose.org where anyone can donate to get a Makerbot into a classroom. If the project is funded, that classroom gets a Makerbot Replicator 2, three spools of PLA, and a year’s worth of MakerCare.
If, however, you teach in Brooklyn, NY, you’re in luck. [Bre Pettis], the big cheese at Makerbot, put up a freaking ton of money for this project. Enough that every public school in Brooklyn will get a printer with the addition of $100 in a Donor’s Choose project. Check out the Makerbot ‘Almost Home’ project on Donors Choose, where your classroom can get a Makerbot, filament, and MakerCare for about $100 in donations. That’s awesome anyway you look at it.
On the Internet, you only need to read half of [Hegel]‘s Phenomenology.
Just as in the 80s, a whole bunch of kids are going to get their hands on new technology that will change the world in a few years. Awesome. Thesis.
This can’t be good, though. I mean, look at what all those Apple IIe’s were used for. Word processing, Appleworks, and Oregon Trail. Yes, it’s fun, but using a computer only as a glorified typewriter does both the student and the computer a disservice. Are we to expect the Makerbots in every classroom will be used for novel and interesting applications? Will students around the country be printing out the stuff they created in art and shop class? Will teachers even know how to use the printer, how to calibrate and operate it? Is this printer just going to sit in a closet somewhere, off-limits to the curious student, going unused simply because 3D printers aren’t at the, ‘push a button, get a plastic part’ level of functionality yet? Obviously the idea of putting 3D printers in every school was thought up by a fool. Antithesis.
Since I’ve already done two-thirds of your thinking for you, I might as well finish the job.
This isn’t going to work without you.
A few years from now, the middle school in your town is going to have a 3D printer. Whether that 3D printer is used is up to you.
How many teachers in 1980 knew about all the intricacies of the Apple II? How many could program? From the stories I’ve read about the early frontier of the digital revolution, not many. The common trope goes something like, “my school had a computer, no one knew how to use it, so I started my IT career at the age of 10.” This isn’t to demean the efforts of educators 30 years ago; back then, a personal computer was a novelty.
Right now, 3D printers are where personal computers were circa 1979. Back then, computers had no ‘killer app’ – VisiCalc wouldn’t be released until later that year. Other than flicking switches and the magic of having a machine that would do numbers and sometimes letters for you, there was no reason for the common person to own a computer. Now, with 3D printers, we have the same situation. We’re pretty sure they’re going to change the world, but no one has figured out exactly how quite yet.
What we can do, though, is create an environment for the killer app to be created. Like the user groups of yore, the 3D printing nerds among us will need to venture forth and find those printers that aren’t used. Do you know a shop teacher? Awesome. Show them the Makerbot announcement and tell them you’ll get them up to speed. Do you know the modern equivalent of that kid who didn’t want to play Oregon Trail after their typing lesson? You should take them to a hackerspace. No hackerspace in your area? Start a 3D printing club. Meet in someone’s garage.
Getting a whole bunch of 3D printers into every community across the country is a great idea no matter how you look at it. Of course a lot of those printers will only be used to spit out Minecraft buildings and plastic Octopodes, but that’s not the point. A few of those teachers, and possibly more of those kids, are going to take 3D printing to where it hasn’t gone before. Who knows, maybe some of those kids will ask Santa for a RepRap kit. It worked with Apple, and it’s going to work again with Makerbot.