Future Reflections       Winter 2015      NONVISUAL ACCESS

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Bringing 3D Printing into the Classroom

by Kevin Yang

Kevin YangFrom the Editor: Until recently, the cost of equipment and materials for 3D printing has kept this technology out of reach for most parents and teachers of blind children. Furthermore, the printing process has been too slow and complicated to be practical. Nonetheless, 3D printing has the potential to become an invaluable tool for the blind community. In this article, Kevin Yang describes his family's program to put 3D printed materials into the hands of blind students.

My name is Kevin. I am seventeen, and my dad has been blind for sixteen years. As a child, I was always accompanied by my dad—running around the house playing hide and seek, banging random keys on the piano, and putting on puppet shows. I forced him to listen to my comedy stand-ups, which actually were just stand-ups, minus the comedy. I couldn't have asked for more.

My dad has a PhD in material science and is working to create a full-page Braille display. In 2003 he developed a novel idea for creating cheaper and more efficient refreshable Braille cells. With the help of my mom, he created a very large scale model based on his Braille cell idea. I was only six at the time, and for me it was like getting a new toy. However, the implications of that first 3D model symbolized the disparities between my father and me.

It was clear to me that my mom could translate my father's words into a physical 3D object, but I could not. When my dad tried to describe his sophisticated idea to my six-year-old mind, all I heard was gibberish. It was incredible to me how my mom was able to understand.

Years later, as a temperamental fifteen-year-old, I found that describing 3D concepts with mere words left much to be desired. Information is almost always lost in the translation, and this frustrated me to no end. I had many ideas for improving upon my dad's current designs. Verbally I tried to explain how this was that and that would do this. My dad didn't get it. Granted, sometimes I didn't even get what I was trying to say myself! Even with the help of tactile graphics, I still was not able to describe to him accurately what I was thinking. It was my dad's turn to feel confused.

What we needed was what we had years ago--a 3D model. The 3D model of the Braille cell my mom built not only showed me what my dad was thinking; it also allowed my mom to show my dad how certain parts of the cell might need rehashing. Our solution to the issue of communicating 3D concepts was to create 3D models of them. As a result, I took up 3D modeling.

Although the learning process took some time, 3D modeling opened up many doors. It facilitated the transfer of my ideas into computer-aided designs. With the help of 3D printing services, my ideas turned into real, holdable, physical objects.

The first time my dad felt a 3D model of one of my ideas, his eyes actually seemed to brighten. With a touch, he understood what I had in vain been trying to describe with words.

Fast forward to 2014. The topic of 3D models came up casually at a family dinner in January. We wondered if there was any website or service that used 3D printing to create tactile materials for blind students. After dinner we Googled the topic, and sadly found out that no such site existed. To us this was shocking news. With dropping prices for 3D printers and a growing number of 3D designers, a website tailored to educational 3D models ought to exist. Just as quickly as Google returned the dismal results, LibraryLyna was founded.

3D model available from LibraryLyna to help blind students learn about elements, electron configurations, and the Octet Rule in chemistry.With our experience from 3D modeling Braille cell concepts, my father and I began working on a 3D printing hub for teachers and blind students. We designed LibraryLyna with accessibility in mind, from the screen-reader accessible framework to menus that are split into logical categories and metadata descriptions of models to give an idea of what might be expected from a print. Moreover, all models available have been handpicked to guarantee high quality. And there are no distracting ads; the website is completely funded by users through donations.

Since January 2014, LibraryLyna has grown to host 144 3D models in the categories of chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Recently we launched a service for teachers of the visually impaired. If a teacher has an idea for a 3D model that he/she cannot purchase or create, it can be requested on our website. We will design and print the model for free. The only caveat is that the teacher needs to write a report on how the model was used in the classroom and whether it was effective.

The goal of LibraryLyna is to increase the graduation rate for blind students. We hope to accomplish this by increasing the number and range of tactile materials available.

How does the process actually work? The 3D models that are available at <librarylyna.com> are what are called STL files. This file type can be compared to a PDF file. When a Word file is published into a PDF, the PDF is in its final form and cannot be edited. The same is true with our STL files. These files are in their final form and cannot be edited or changed. All editing occurs at LibraryLyna with trained 3D modelers so that the process is optimized for end user ease-of-use. Downloading an STL file from LibraryLyna is as easy as finding the model and clicking the "download" button. After downloading a desired model, the user sends the STL file to a 3D printing slicing application. Examples of this application include MakerWare for MakerBot 3D printers and XYZware for XYZ 3D printers. These applications receive the file and automatically prepare it to be printed. At this step, all the user has to do is connect a supported 3D printer with a USB cable and hit the "print" button.

If a 3D printer is not readily available, users can take the file that they downloaded from our website and send it directly to a 3D printing service such as Shapeways, i.materialise, or Sculpteo. These services take care of the 3D printing process and ship the 3D printed model directly to the user. The downside of this process is that it is more expensive, per print. After approximately twelve prints, the cost of a 3D printer is financially smarter.

Wait! Isn't 3D printing complicated and expensive? 3D printers are becoming more and more domestic. I like to compare them to computers. During the early 1940s, when computers were still in their infancy, no rational person would spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to buy one. No individual thought that he or she could tackle the messy electric switches, mechanical relays, and electronic circuitry involved. But lo and behold, after years of refinement, computers can now be found in homes, libraries, and schools. 3D printers are the same. In 1992 the first stereolithographic 3D printer was used to build parts layer by layer. It was exorbitantly expensive to the ordinary consumer. However, as of 2014, many types of 3D printers are available for no more than five hundred dollars, about the current price of many computers. Moreover, 3D printers, like computers of the current age, have become very easy to use. One-touch processing allows end users with no experience to print predesigned models.

Today 3D printing is completely feasible for the classroom and home. It is the future of education.

Dr. Marc Maurer, Immediate Past President of the National Federation of the Blind, has said, "Equal access to education 100 percent of the time is what we want and what we intend to get." We hope that blind students will never be at a disadvantage compared to their sighted peers due to a lack of tactile material.

LibraryLyna is proud to be at the forefront of reforming the education industry with 3D printing for blind students. Imagine having a 3D model to demonstrate every single STEM concept, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, at the click of a mouse or the touch of a key! The era of 3D printing is now!

Feel free to contact me with questions, requests, or assistance. Here is my contact information.

Email: [email protected]
Phone: (480) 316-0382
Website: <http://www.LIBRARYLYNA.COM>
Twitter: <http://twitter.com/librarylyna>
Facebook: <https://facebook.com/librarylyna>

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