In the IT field, an organization’s collection of computers, infrastructure equipment, and software is often referred to as an “environment”. However, in my own thinking process, it sometimes helps me to envision it as a box or collection of boxes, as this approach helps me to select the right equipment and software for our students. Each box in your collection contains tools that can hold, process, and/or communicate some data. That data, for example, could be pictures from the last field trip, grades, or GPS data on the wildlife roaming nearby campus. Each box has its own limits of what you can and can’t do based on the nature of the box, in other words, what tools the box has built inside it and what can they be used to do.
To demonstrate this let’s take 3D printing as an example. On the surface you might think it would be one box, the physical 3D printer. However, I think about it as 3 boxes with the actual 3D printer itself being one of those boxes. The 3D printers do nothing without being told to, by software that has to slice up the 3D design layer by layer, so add printing software in as your second box. And, if you haven’t guessed it by now, the 3rd box is the software that lets you actually design something to print.
The reason it is so important to examine each of these boxes separately is because they serve a different combination of people and purposes. Going back to my example, the first box, the printer itself, was chosen based on available support and ease of use (Makerbot 5th generation replicators). That made the second choice easy, as the Makerbot Desktop software is very user friendly and designed specifically for those printers. That software was also part of the reason we made our choice with box #1. Lastly, the design software is where the rubber met the road. A couple of our teachers went to Makerbot training over the summer where they were introduced to several different CAD software packages. But, they didn’t seem really excited about any of them, so they asked me what I thought they should be using with their classes.
At this point most organizations would probably have just gone with the recommended Autodesk 123D as their standard. One thing that bothered me about going with the generic recommendation in this case was that this "box" had a border. Yes, we have enough Mac and Windows machines that we could have just installed on those, but needing specific machines and software to create something never seems very 21st Century to me. When children get excited about throwing themselves into a learning project at home, I want them to have access to work on the project anytime. In this case especially, it seemed particularly wrong to limit them to just what they can do in the allocated classroom time, which would be like giving students a few guitar lessons knowing many of them don’t have a guitar at home to use for practice.
So we tried out Tinkercad, which is a cloud based 3D design software that students can use on any computer without installing a special design software package. All they would need to start designing is a supported web browser. This approach yielded amazing results.
In our first year of 3D printing I saw children who often struggle to complete homework on time, come to me with designs that they had spent many hours of their weekend working on, because they were so excited about the design project. I have had a number of students who ask for ideas of what they could design, just because they want to go home and design something. In short, when we give children a box of tools that has no border in time or space they can, and quite frequently will, play with those tools outside the academic setting. Just don’t tell them they are actually learning!