3D Printing the Imagination: Educating for the Future

Ebelt is a pilot, participated in NASA’s Zero Gravity flight, and enjoys gliding on the weekends.

Kaye Ebelt is an inspired educator and life-long learner who has a BA in Elementary Education, ME in Computer technology, and MS in Science Education. She is currently an Albert Einstein Fellow, serving as the Directorate for Engineering at the National Science Foundation. Ebelt also participated in NASA’s MicroGX and Reduced Gravity Flight in 2011.

The Power of Passion

It is clear from Kaye Ebelt’s background that she has a passion for learning. During her interview, we learned how she is passing that passion on to other teachers and students. As the Directorate for Engineering at the National Science Foundation, Ebelt provides her expertise forming STEM education programs. When we asked how Ebelt was awarded the Directorate position, she admitted, “It started with me wanting to know what a 3D printer was. A fellow teacher connected me with John Westrum from Afinia, and he set me up with a printer. When I got it, it was the only thing my students and I focused on for two months. They would skip lunch and recess to print!”

Ebelt recognizes the impact that teaching has on students. “When you have a teacher who is so passionate about what they are dong, you get excited about it. A teacher is supposed to share their experiences. When a teacher shares their passion for STEM, their students are more likely to go into a STEM career.”

When we spoke with Ebelt, she had just returned from a trip to Houston and Wyoming where she shared her STEM knowledge with 20 cadets, their parents, and sponsors, showing them how to use 3D printers. “People loved the Afinia 3D printer. I was up until 3am every day, printing in my room, which was filled with people!”

3D Printing the Imagination

The Afinia 3D printer affected the students more than they could have imagined.

Students get hands-on with a catapult project.
Students get hands-on with a catapult project.

“My 5th grade students came up with a way to teach kindergartners how it works by comparing it to a topographical map: they explained that it is built in layers. At first you can’t tell what it is, but as the layers are stacked, the full-picture comes into focus.” Ebelt explains, “Using the printer not only helped students learn about engineering and how things work, but it also expanded their vocabulary. They learned words like ‘extruding,’ ‘initialize’ and ‘calibrate.’ The projects they were doing (including building a catapult) excited them so much and were so fun, they didn’t even realize how much they were learning. They read the entire manual and ended up knowing more about it than I did. They even came up with a motto: ‘Printing your imagination.'”

Word traveled fast about her 3D printer and soon students from other classes and grade levels were investigating Ebelt’s printer during passing time. “The 5th graders even ended up explaining the printers to the 8th graders. So many classes were interested in the printer that we decided to have a presentation for everyone at the end of the year.”

Teaching Engineering Education

“When I came to Washington D.C., it was decided that teachers needed to be educated in engineering and 3D printing. That became my mission. Educators need to know engineering education and how to use a single printer to teach 27 students.”

“Critical thinking is a pivotal aspect of engineering, and it is the hardest skill for teachers to foster. With math, science, and social studies, all of the subjects are taught separately. With engineering, it combines subjects and takes students to the next level of critical thinking while simultaneously letting their creativity run wild. In engineering, the sky is the limit. You don’t know what the outcome will be… and that’s the fun part.”

Ebelt promotes pre-engineering in preschool, since it is where visualization skills are sharpened. “There’s been research on incoming freshman engineering students. Girls are coming in with weak 3D visualization skills while boys are coming in with stronger skills. If you think about the toys each gender plays with during their younger years, it makes sense. Girls are encouraged to play with Barbies while boys are given Legos. However, video games are also causing a loss of 3D visualization. Engineering and 3D printing can bring it back and sharpen these skills in both girls and boys.”

A Hands-On Approach

Ebelt has always preferred hands-on learning.

Students get hands-on with a catapult project.
Students get hands-on with a catapult project.

“It comes from my parents. My mom is an elementary school teacher and my dad has an engineering degree. Throughout my childhood, play and making, designing, and revising was how I grew up. Hands-on learning was part of my life, and that became the way I teach.”

This hands-on focus magnifies Ebelt’s love of 3D printing. “Traditionally, lots of students get overlooked. You don’t see how skilled they are in building and fixing because they lack hands-on activities. Being hands-on can help solidify concepts, too. Because of this, my lowest-achieving math student now loves math. Working with the 3D printer taught him how to stick with a project until it was finished.”

Fighting for Robots

Ebelt is no stranger to sticking with projects. “Ten years ago, I approached the school principal about starting a robotics class. I offered it as an after school program and had 7 students sign up. In its second year, two parents decided to get involved, one being an engineer. That second year, our club won the state tournament and went to nationals. For the first time, students were realizing they could become engineers. After that, the school board unanimously approved to make robotics a school sponsored activity. That was eight years ago. Since then, we have grown from a team of 7 to a team of 75. It has been incredible. Other Missoula schools have taken it up, and even the middle schools have adopted robotics. Kids are realizing engineering is fun!”

Can’t Stop

Ebelt’s passion for students and science didn’t stop at robots. After participating in NASA’s MicroGX and Reduced Gravity Flight and attending a space camp, she knew it was something that would fascinate students. “I knew if I’m this excited about it, the students would be ecstatic! was something that Missoula didn’t have, so I designed one. It’s offered through the Y and has impacted almost 2,000 students.”

Ebelt has also designed a mini medical school class. “Kids apply for medical school and take on a variety of specialty roles. Doctors come in from the local hospitals and help teach the children about the medical field. The students end up preparing a presentation and taking their “medical boards.” Once they pass, they get a patient card and use their knowledge to diagnose the patient. Incorporating a 3D printer is very exciting – now the students can use it for the biomedical unit and can print mock body parts rather than using props like soda bottles as lungs, as we did before.”

Exciting Time in Education

When we expressed our awe of her passion and creativity in teaching, Ebelt’s modesty appeared. “I like learning things I don’t know and sharing that with the kids. I try to be the type of teacher I would want.” She added, “The opportunity provided to me with the Afinia 3D printer has changed everything for me… I’m lucky to be involved in education right now. Where this is heading, it is very exciting.”

Schools are realizing how important 3D printing and engineering are to education. There is already talk of making Ebelt a STEM Coordinator, emphasizing engineering education in Montana Schools, to coordinate and train teachers in new technologies when she returns in 2015.