A MakerBot is a tabletop-sized device that takes digital designs and builds them in the real world, layer by thin layer, out of a plastic-like roll of filament derived from corn. You can create or customize any design you can think of– a working prosthetic hand, or a scale model of the Eiffel Tower, or a set of chess pieces–or download someone else’s design from the Thingiverse, MakerBot’s free online library. Comparatively low-cost and easy to use, MakerBots are the popular edge of what technology observers and futurists–even President Obama–call a “new industrial revolution” of mass customization, where design is democratized and manufacturing is one day as decentralized as knowledge production has become. Plus, they’re just wondrously cool.
MakerBot CEO Bre Prettis used to teach public school in Seattle. “It’s always been a dream of mine to get this into more classrooms,” he says. This week he announced the MakerBot Academy to do just that.
Teachers who want a MakerBot for their classroom are asked to register at the educational donation site DonorsChoose. There, their project can be funded through tax-deductible donations by individual donors. The architectural software company Autodesk has also agreed to sponsor a number of MakerBots, as has the director of MakerBot’s parent company, and Prettis personally is committed to funding them for high schools in his current home neighborhood of Brooklyn. For any teacher, MakerBot is making available a package of the printer itself, three rolls of filament, and a service and support plan at $2000, a $700 savings over the retail cost.
“A MakerBot is a manufacturing education in a box; it unlocks creativity and gets kids thinking about how things work,” Prettis says. He sees the machines functioning in classrooms in a range of ways.
On a practical level, MakerBots could be a relatively affordable way to furnish a steady stream of new materials and supplies for classrooms that might not otherwise be able to afford them, from a detailed model of a human heart to simple machines for use in physics. To start out, DonorsChoose told MakerBot that one of the most commonly requested items are “math manipulatives,” the blocks, wedges, counters and other toys that help kids learn geometry, arithmetic and more. MakerBot put out a design challenge to its Thingiverse community to submit ideas for new and creative manipulatives that can be downloaded, printed and used in classrooms. It’s exciting to think about students and teachers in different communities creating and sharing their own designs for classroom purposes.
MakerBot is going to be sharing curricula created by teachers and companies like Autodesk to help teachers work the 3-D printers into lesson planning from kindergarten through high schools. Within the world of K-12 innovation, we’re oftentimes focused on the use of handheld devices with screens, but learning can be an intensely tactile process, and the MakerBot taps into that. “A MakerBot is actually a great bridge between the virtual and physical world,” Prettis says.