Dr. Williams is Bringing Education Back to Life with 3D Printing

Dr. Keith Williams is a visiting professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Virginia and a program manager for a research division of Leidos, based at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. Leidos is a company that assists the US in combating threats to national security. Dr. Williams tweets about his UVa Introduction to Engineering class using the Twitter handle @engr1620.

The Technological Cloud

If you stumble upon Dr. Williams’ blog, it appears that he is opposed to using technology in the classroom, terming it a “technological cloud” hanging over education. But dig deeper and it becomes clear that his complaint is with overreliance on virtual, 2D “technology” (e.g. power point lectures and online classes) in disciplines for which 3D experiential learning is needed. He advocates introducing transformative technology, including 3D printing, to help students apply knowledge. And based on his students’ feedback, they agree, rating Dr. Williams and his engaging activities very favorably.

An Experiential Education

Although Dr. Williams has been 3D printing for merely a year, he is exposed to the technology at both his job at UVa and Leidos. “My combination of jobs is interesting and exciting. I’m able to see the workforce applications that are appearing for 3D printing, which allows me to better prepare my students for what they may encounter after graduation. I want to give students the kind of experiential education that connects them to good opportunities. In today’s world, that includes giving them experience with 3D printing, and hands-on design/build experience.

We need to move from simply sharing knowledge and information to true application and incorporating critical thinking.”

3D: Bringing Education Back to Life

“The 3D printing lessons I’ve developed turn out to be immensely popular and effective teaching tools, especially for students who don’t have as much prior build experience. On evaluations, 3D printing is something most students say they enjoyed the most. Producing something tangible helps them feel that they have accomplished something. It is something they can show their parents and friends. 3D printing helps introduce theoretical topics in a lively and realistic way. Two-dimensional teaching is killing education and students’ enthusiasm for learning. Taking students into the 3rd dimension revitalizes the classroom, gets students excited and showing up. Participation is the highest I have ever seen.”

Dr. Williams is not the only professor at UVa working with 3D printers.

Dr. Williams' 3D-printed class ring.
Dr. Williams’ 3D-printed class ring.

However, many instructors have students print out a ready-made design. Williams’ approach is different: “I wanted them to create something, so it is their own. I got the idea to print class rings because you can design a basic ring in about 10 minutes, but if you put more time into it, you can get more inventive. Students came up with interlocking rings, more elaborate writing, and lockets. After they learn the basics, they just go to town. It’s a great project that allows the instructor to print multiple rings at one time, too, so students can walk out that day wearing what they’ve created. After they get enough basic experience, we move on to more complicated projects. One of my students even printed his own violin bridge.” (The ‘bridge’ of a violin is a critical component that supports the tension of the strings.)

To Each Their Own

“These students are in an environment surrounded by cool applications. With the Afinia, they can get a quick start with hands-on experience and learn basic design. Learning to go from CAD to 3D printing usually takes a lesson or two, and then students are able to turn out designs pretty quickly.” Dr. Williams takes what he calls the “zen approach” to teaching, allowing students to decide what to make, giving them the “pedagogical power” to create their own learning experience. “I don’t want to provide a packaged experience that is the same for everybody. Individualized learning – that’s the value of higher education. It’s not just downloading your degree.”

“Engineering is about getting the students to think outside of the box: to brainstorm, to create, to get them excited about learning more and eventually creating something bigger. Within a semester of using the 3D printer, they realize the vast opportunity for advanced 3D projects.”

3D in Unity

“3D printing with the Afinia is very easy to learn. I hadn’t done 3D printing before last year, and the semester had already started when I saw the printer and wanted to use it. I sat down with a faculty member who had experience with the Afinia 3D printer and in an hour I had a good grasp on it.”

Williams wishes more faculty members would learn to use the 3D printers. “Faculty see 3D printers and think they would be difficult to use. But really, they couldn’t be any easier. The hardest issue people have is with scaling the image… but this provides a learning opportunity. It would be great to see departments working together not only with 3D printing, but to create new programs that better fit students’ interests and to meet the desire for a more multi-disciplinary education. Teaching an introductory course, I do my best to create a broad experience for my students, allowing them to see the big picture but also giving them the first nudges toward specialization and helping them realize how they can incorporate science and engineering into other fields.”

The More, the Merrier

“The Afinia 3D printer has been great. We haven’t experienced any issues. I guess the only issue we have is that we have too few printers… we should have twice as many! It would be nice to have more available to students and faculty.” In addition to the Afinia 3D printers, The University of Virginia also has a mechanical engineering lab with high-end equipment, including laser cutters and other rapid prototyping tools in its Rapid Prototyping Lab.

To keep up with Dr. Williams’ UVa Introduction to Engineering class, follow him (@engr1620) on Twitter.