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Learning in 3D

NEW ORLEANS - Students at De La Salle High School in New Orleans step into what some consider a classroom of the future. 

"It's part of our bigger project to help young people get ready for the next 50 years," said De La Salle High President Michael Guillot.

Inside, senior David Bittner designs a cookie jar on a computer in the school's brand new Creativity Studio.

"It gives students more tools to learn," said Bittner.

Equipped with 3D modeling software, he uses one of several high-end workstations.

"We wanted a tool that all subjects across all boards could use and make it relevant towards what they (teachers) are teaching," said J.P. Garnier, De La Salle Senior Dir. of Operations and Innovation.  

A 3D printer is one of those devices. Instead of printing the way most of us are used to on a flat surface like paper, this printer creates a three-dimensional solid object that starts out as a digital model.

"On the 3D software - Model It - and then we can actually print it so you can physically touch it," said Garnier. 

Rather than ink, the 3D printer prints with plastic, layer on top of layer.  During our visit, it was in the process of printing a red Superdome. 

"Right now, I'm trying to make a 3D snowman," said freshman Chloe Rihner.

She and another freshman, Bryce Racine, test the school's latest toys. 

"I actually needed a chess set because I kept losing all my pieces, and I wanna keep them," said Racine. 

Teachers believe this gives students an opportunity to think on a higher level and grasp what they're learning in all subjects through cutting-edge technology.

"So math, you can come over here and think of geometry and have the students think of geometric shapes, either design them, and then print them, physically," explained Garnier.

"Let's look at world history. All of a sudden you can design and build, download and reshape maybe the great historical monuments - the great works of the world," said Guillot.  

The machine at De La Salle printed several objects and some with great detail like a shark's head with sharp teeth. The Eiffel Tower with intricate arches and lattice work is another example.

"Just anything that we want to print, just make it, and then you can print it," said junior Jacob Lavarine.

Freshman Demi Robinette said she'd like to print the iPhone 5S. She can't print the guts of an iPhone, but can certainly print a phone case.

From printed eyeglass frames to printed prosthetic limbs for humans, and in one case, a duck, we've seen the range of objects the technology can make. Born with a backwards webbed foot that had to be amputated, "Buttercup" the duck now waddles with a 3D printed foot.

De La Salle teachers expect students like Bittner with interests in civil engineering can benefit from the 3D printer and use those skills in college and eventually, in the workplace.  "If I was trying to design maybe a safety part for a bridge, I could design it and then show them how it moves and how it fits into a bridge," explained Bittner. 

Starting out extremely basic, Bittner explains how to build that cookie jar.  "First I needed to take a sphere out of the already-built library website," he said.  Next, he adds a second sphere on top of the original one.  "Cause eventually you're gonna turn it into a hole, and it's gonna make a sphere-shaped hole so that way you can cut a little hole into the sphere you previously made," said Bittner.  To give the jar traction, he places three cylinders under the sphere that serve as legs.

Students then save their design on a thumb drive and plug it into the actual printer. Next, they have to decide how big or small to make their object and pick out a color.  The De La Salle printer can print up three colors at a time.

"There's cartridges of plastic filament on the side. The filament goes into the print head. The print head melts it, and it extrudes out a thin, thin filament, a smaller filament, and basically builds the object layer by layer by layer by layer and it slowly builds it. So it's basically printing in molten plastic and hardens it as soon as it comes out," said Garnier. 

The 3D printer builds the layers up, and over the next several hours, turns a digital Superdome into a physical object with its hourglass-like shape that students can hold. "I think it's pretty genius to put inside of a school," said Bittner.

Many believe that 3D printers - as they become more accessible and affordable - will in the next few years become part of our everyday lives. Who knows? Maybe the next young inventor will come out of a De La Salle classroom. 



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