Dylan's Experience with 3D Printing


Written by Colin Pattison. Colin is an elementary school teacher who shares his experience with a student who discovered a love for 3D printing.

Dylan wasn't always like this. In fact, quite the opposite.

Dylan has had a storied history in LKDSB. He's a hothead. He would be the first to admit it. He can be argumentative, rude - dismissive at times. He's always been good for being in class, but he's not always been present. He's always been okay with flying under the radar. Not being noticed. He never really tried that hard in class.

He's a smart kid.

That's for sure. Intelligence isn't a problem. Skillset isn't a problem. Motivation isn't really a problem. He has no trouble getting motivated. When he has something to be motivated about. Dylan's biggest problem is Dylan. He doesn't think he's smart - or rather, he didn't think he was smart. He never really had anything to feel proud about, at least in terms of academics, which would have been hard.

When I first met Dylan, he was in Grade 6. I think the first time I saw him, he was in the hallway. Standing with his head down, hockey stick in hand. I still see him like that - hockey stick and whatnot - a lot at school. He was getting a lecture. Likely, he was misbehaving. He had probably run his mouth, and whatever speech he was getting, he probably deserved. By Grade 7, he had started instigating trouble at school. He would stir the pot, mess with other peoples' stuff and get in fights - both verbal, and physical. It wasn't a good situation.

We got him. As a division, this wasn't our first rodeo. We'd dealt with kids like Dylan. He wasn't the first, and he definitely wouldn't be the last. The biggest thing he needed was a mentor. A trusted adult who could help him along. The problem was - he needed to make it through so we could make that happen. If he pushed it too far, the whole thing would be out of our hands. He burned bridges at other schools. There were reasons, good ones, why they wouldn't take him back, and one day, he almost stacked the straw that broke the camel's back. My principal at the time, one of the most dedicated, student-driven administrators I'd ever met, was at wit's end. After a particularly heated intervention meeting, he stormed down the hallway, saw me - shouted something to the effect of "He's done".

Slammed the door and walked off. He came back a few minutes later once his head had cleared and he was in a calmer state of mind.

I take it back. You get him.

And I did. We both agreed, I was his best shot. That being said, I was also his last chance. He liked me - I liked him - we both liked ping pong. We would play together and chat. He was more relaxed on days like that. Good enough reasons I guess. So in he went. September came and as per usual, I came with this half-baked idea to have students design 3D printed skipping ropes. It wasn't that hard - a basic cylinder for the handle - set to the dimensions of a standard skateboard bearing - a couple of pieces of Nylon wire and we'd be in business. I'd been playing with a new tool for 3D design - Vectary.

Vectary 3D modeling

Vectary has powerful modifiers that make things like beveling a piece of cake. At the top of the image, you can see the selectors. In this case, four lines were selected, offset and beveled to create the shape on the screen.

I started tooling around and realized that while it wasn't great at all things, it was fantastic at certain things. Vectary is a mesh-modeling program. Essentially, that means the lion's share of your work is done with polylines. Straight, angular dimensions, that together would form an outside skeleton of a 3D figure. While this wasn't ideal for all applications, it lends itself particularly useful when it came to modifying geometry - like smoothing the curves of a handle.

Once I cut my chops, we were off to the races. In no time, we were flying - full tutorial mode. We spent a few classes getting down the basics. The best thing about learning to design is that all programs are similar. Not the same, but similar. Each one has:

  • An x-axis

  • A y-axis

  • A z-axis

  • Some drawing tools

  • An extrude function

To put it simply, that's about it. Each one is going to have more or less features - transformation commands, cutting tools, modifiers, mirroring options, Boolean operations - but at the core, a 3D workspace, drawing tools, and the ability to extrude are all you really need.

One day, Dylan walks in and mentions something about shooting a tutorial. He has his own YouTube channel and regularly uploads videos. To the best of my knowledge, most of it was gameplay stuff - narrated sessions with a picture in picture. He asked me to take a look, and I said I would - but then I didn't. I got busy, there was stuff going on and we didn't get a chance to connect, until Science at the end of the day. I didn't have Dylan for Science that day. He bursts into my class, and says something like: "They commented! Vectary!"

I had no idea what he was talking about. I congratulated him and reminded him that I was teaching a class and that I could probably take a look when I was finished. He wasn't having any of that. He coaxed me out of class and off we went. He threw headphones on my head and there we stood - myself and two colleagues. He wanted us to watch the whole video. It was fourteen minutes long. At the bottom of the video, was a comment.

Great video, Dylan! We are looking forward to seeing how you’re rockin’ with our tool in the next video. 

From a verified account. The Vectary team. He was over the moon. We listened to the audio, and it was good. Clean, clear instructions. Fluent navigation. Effortless modeling. He made a few mistakes but he didn't let it get to him. We were blown away. None of us - had ever seen him this engaged. Ever. Especially, not at home - when he wasn't required to do work.

The next day, we had a PA day. We started at 9:00, but our team was there by 8:30. He was pinging us by 8:45. He had added us all on Instagram. On accounts, we had set up but never taken the time to use. Because they were connected to e-mail, we saw the notifications.

"They commented again!"

"They made a suggestion!"

"They made me a video!"

We figured that the last one was a big crock of - something - but, lo and behold, we checked it out and sure enough it was a short little GIF. Someone from the team had taken a screen recording and sent the results to him. He was trying to make a hat. He had the basics, but it wasn't very good. He couldn't figure out the brim. They gave him a few suggestions, showed him the tweak and left it at that. He commented back and promised to upload a new video before the weekend was done. We were out of the loop. He didn't need us anymore. He was communicating directly with the design team.

That night, before I left, I sent an e-mail. I'm a big believer in the power of good karma and I think when people do good things they should get the recognition they deserve. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I sent a carefully worded e-mail to the Vectary team. The overall message was - you think you just left a comment. Whoever sent that first message thought they were just engaging with the internet. What they didn't know is that the impact of that one action would be much, much bigger.

Dylan's on something like his tenth video now. He's a household name at the Vectary office, and he regularly chats back and forth with members of their team. He's taken a special interest in furniture design. In the last week, he's designed five or six tables. Everything from mid-century modern, to Ikea inspired, guided reading tables, and everything in between. In class, his Math skills have improved dramatically. His vocabulary is vast - especially when it comes to Measurement and Geometry units. He makes conversions with ease and knows how to dimension. He's taken to tutoring, mentoring other interested students, and he's happy. You can see it in his eyes that he's proud of what he's doing. It's the first time - ever - I've seen him get this much positive attention. And he deserves it. Every single compliment. He's not perfect yet - none of us are. He's got a fair way to go if he wants to make something of all this, but at this point, he's got a pretty good start.

If you want someone to cater to you, to tell you all the buzzwords, you're not going to get it from me. If you want to know why kids like Minecraft - why kids like building stuff, go talk to some kids. As a teacher, I can tell you that learning design - specifically 3D - changes your perspective. The platform doesn't matter. The tools don't matter. All that matters is that you have the power to make things. Real things. 3D printers are a gateway. They open the flood gates to small scale manufacturing and when you can look around the world and make sense of the objects you hold in your hands, Math makes sense. That's all we can ask of our students. That they try to see the why and the how of the concepts they encounter in class. 

I've been fortunate as a teacher to meet a couple of Dylans in my career. Maybe you have too. I hope maybe this story will inspire one of you to seek one out. In one of your classrooms, in one of your schools, there's a Dylan. A hotheaded, fireball of a kid, with a heart of gold just waiting for someone to take him under their wing. And if you find them, you should do it. It will all be worth it in the end.

Written by: Colin Pattison