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3D printers changing the way some Pasadena students learn

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A $100,000 donation from a retired businessman has turned some lucky Pasadena students into technicians, collaborators and possibly future entrepreneurs.

Richard Davis' contribution to the Pasadena Unified School District made it possible to place 3D printers in each of the district's 27 schools. 

The printers spit out objects in three dimensions from materials like plastic and even paper. As the printers drop in price, they are making their way into classrooms around the country and changing the way students are learning. 

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Last week, a group of 4th and 5th-graders at Hamilton Elementary School huddled around a 3D printer as the machine sputtered and a wheel of white plastic melted into shape, slowly printing out a toy block piece.

"It’s starting to mess up and the heat is kind of melting wrong on the plastic," said 9-year-old Haven Prosperi. Even when the 3D printer spits out an imperfect object, she said she and her fellow computer class students still learn.

"Because then you learn from your mistakes and you can do it again and make it even better than it was before," she explained.

The students used computer-aided design software, known as CAD, to develop 3D models that could be broken into fractions. It was a math lesson, an art lesson, and more.

"It is about being creative. It is about adapting. It is about experimenting, It is about not being afraid to trust your instincts and go with an idea," said graphic design teacher Miguel Almena, a former Disney employee who leads the 3D technology training of the district's teachers. 

One district high school, Marshall Fundamental Secondary School, uses the new technology to partner with local businesses in developing new products with the printers. High school students are also building props for the school's production of "Pippin."

Students from elementary to high school get to experiment with the 3D devices, with lessons geared to each grade level.

Marshall Fundamental high school senior Caolan John is glad the district is thinking ahead and introducing students to the leading edge printers.

"Give it five years," he said. "Everyone else is going to be coming to us, super excited about it. It’s good that we’re getting to it early."

Industry watchers say there are hundreds of thousands of the 3D printers already in classrooms. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, about half a dozen 3D vendors targeted educators.

Part of the appeal of the new technology is that teachers get to prepare students for employment in a changing work force.

Davis, 82, said he was looking toward the future in making his donation. The contribution not only paid for the printers, but covered tech support when they machines need repair.

"There are going to be many, many jobs waiting for students who are 3D literate," Davis said.

Ten-year-old Victor Perez has also been thinking ahead.

"If we don’t learn it now, it’s going to be hard," said Victor. "Sort of like how if you don’t learn how to bicycle or swim when you’re a kid, you can’t learn it when you’re a grown up." 

Sparking classroom innovation

Experts say the key to integrating 3D printers into schools is finding the teachers who are excited about the technology and have the time to learn it.

At Hamilton Elementary, that meant handing the 3D printer to computer lab teacher Nichole Anderson. 

"There is definitely a learning curve," Anderson said. "No teachers are really like, ‘Yeah, let me learn how to do it.’ They’re all kind of like, 'OK, we'll expose the kids and when I have an idea I’ll bring it to you and you can figure out how to make it work.'"

There's another challenge in introducing the new technology to teachers and students: Anderson’s position is privately financed though fundraising efforts, and many schools don't have the resources for similar support.

Back in the computer lab, Anderson and her students are examining a 3D object produced by the printer. Watching them work together, it’s clear kids are learning much more than just tech skills.

The item came out malformed and, at first, the teacher doesn't see it. But a student spots the problem and explains what needs fixing. This ability to collaborate and use creative problem-solving is the type of thinking educators at all levels are trying to cultivate, especially as Common Core learning standards that stress these skills take hold in the classroom.

So far, elementary students in the district have printed hall passes, pencil holders and even a perfect snowflake to hang on a Christmas tree.

But they’re dreaming so much bigger – toy armies, new cars and perhaps jobs for the future.

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