Though Walt himself didn’t actually say it, “If you dream it, you can do it” is a slogan adopted by the Disney folks at Epcot and taken to heart by many true believers in the wonders of modern technology and other positive thinkers. But back in the early ‘80s, when the EPCOT Center was first built to showcase what the future might look like, even those “imagineers” didn’t quite anticipate how soon and how literally that slogan might come true. They thought that we’d have flying cars and urban monorail systems so on; but they didn’t yet realize that by 2017 a fifth-grader could come up with an idea, grab a computer mouse and transform it into a three-dimensional reality.
The Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center (HVAMC) at SUNYNew Paltz made a big splash in 2014, when a staff member and a student created a fully articulated prosthetic hand for a six-year-old Chester boy using a 3-D printer. Since then the facility has expanded its array of MakerBot replicators and made them available to the off-campus community, including local businesses, schools and ordinary people with extraordinary brainwaves. And last Wednesday, January 11, 22 students from Meredith Oppenheimer and Jane Beck’s class at Lenape Elementary School came to HVAMC to watch their own concepts take physical form.
The class project got underway in September, when the two fifth-grade teachers discovered that the parent of one of their new students was SUNY Engineering instructor Michael Otis. “We’ve been teaching together about four years, and we’re trying to incorporate more STEM this year,” said Oppenheimer. At the teachers’ invitation, Otis began visiting the Lenape classroom once a week during the math block, showing the kids how to use an online computer-assisted design program called TinkerCAD. The software enables even novice users to create a prototype for 3-D printing by dragging geometric shapes over the screen, dropping them onto the 2-D model — which can be rotated and viewed from any angle — and tweaking the result to suit their fancy. In the meantime, they’re painlessly learning concepts of geometry, scaling, problem-solving, perimeter, volume and measurement. Who knew that mathematics could be hands-on fun?
When the TinkerCAD prototype is complete, it is saved and exported to a MakerBot printer, which then begins to extrude colorful plastic in layers that build up to create a real-world finished product. Once they got the hang of the software, the kids in Beck and Oppenheimer’s class had been tasked with a collaborative project guaranteed to tickle to imagination of a 10- or 11-year-old: Design an amusement park! Each student took on a component as his or her assignment, and collectively they created an impressively broad range of features that might be found in a theme park or fairground. There were plenty of rides, of course, but also vehicles, food stands, game booths, a dunk tank, a hotel, a parking garage, security and first-aid stations and more.
“I did Freefall,” said student Avery Gregor. “I chose that because, when I was growing up, I would ride that every time I went to the fair. It’s fun.” Rollercoasters are Delaney Pece’s favorite thrill ride, so she invented one that doesn’t yet exist in the real world, but probably will soon: with cars that can back up, turn around and change direction on the track. Annabel Voorhis let her imagination run wild, designing a feathered “Chicken Swing” where fairgoers can sit while eating. “I just wanted to do some funny thing that has to do with a chicken,” she said.
Food-related attractions were popular concepts among the kids. “I did a fried dough stand,” reported Gabby Lutz. “When I heard ‘amusement park,’ I thought of food. I like to bake things. My Grandma makes fried dough; it’s my favorite.” Ileana Cheruiyot designed a specialty snack shop called Lollipop Lovers, offering lollipops in a wide variety of colors, flavors, shapes and sizes.
While they watched their inventions take shape in the 3-D printing lab in the Smiley Art Building, the students got a tour from MakerBot Innovation Center director Aaron Nelson, who used the Lenape teachers as guinea pigs to demonstrate how a hand-held scanner can be used to create a bust of a person. The kids got to handle and examine objects, both practical and ornamental, previously made in the lab. When it was time to head back to class, they presented Otis with a bound volume of hand-drawn thank-you letters and had their pictures taken with him. Once they are complete, Otis said that he would take all the amusement park components back to Lenape, where they will be assembled in the display case in the front lobby for viewing.
“It’s a cool place for kids,” observed HVAMC’s assistant director, Kat Wilson. “They can actually see what they made virtually turn into something physical. It’s kind of like having a superpower: to have something in mind, draw it out and turn it into reality.” At this rate, the 3-D printing lab at SUNY New Paltz may be shaping the amusement park designers and other imagineers of tomorrow more than Epcot ever did. “We’re the seed,” said Wilson. “We can give people access to the technologies; they’re going to come up with the ideas!”