After Parent’s Weekend most year, parents walk away with an appreciation of all the great work their children do and a better understanding of the goals and methods their teachers have. After Parent’s Weekend this year, parents of students in my Spanish 4 class walked away with this plus a student-designed, Mesoamerican-inspired 3D printed artifact. A mouthful to say and a month-ful to execute.

How did we get here? Four reasons, I guess. 1) I like to tinker–as much with technology as with the topics we study and the approaches we take. 2) I know just enough Tinkercad to be dangerous and I wanted to provide my students an opportunity to explore the platform. 3) This end-cap endeavor was a natural extension of a creative writing project that had been successful in the past. 4) I chose not to listen to the advice about doing something for the first time under pressure with parents present, fearing that Murphy’s Law–and likely some of the same Mesoamerican deities–might conspire against us.

We open the year in Spanish 4 with a close reading and critical cultural study of Mexican mythology. We consider the myths as both stories to be comprehended as windows into a cultural cosmovisión. These five myths shared a lot in common: their structure, their symmetries, their tone and even some of their protagonists; however, they were different enough to represent each of four groups (Mexicas, Mayas, Zapotecs and Triquis) to underscore significant elements of each civilization.

As we did in the past few years, we finished the unit with a creative writing assignment in which students had to write an original creation story based on motifs of the Mesoamerican myths they read. Some of the best myths over the years narrated the creation of modern things, from cell phones to gospel music to AI, based on patterns they learned about. We focused most closely on cycles of creation and destruction, the unique relationship between mankind and gods in Mesoamerican mythology, and the centrality of sacrifice in these narratives. It is interesting to note that the deeper students dove into their own narratives, the more they seemed to understand their connection to other creation stories and other sacred texts. A topic for a future post, perhaps?

So that is it most years: close reading, critical thinking, creative writing, careful drafting. I am 100% pleased with that in every class every year. This year, though, we went deeper.

…the deeper students dove into their own narratives, the more they seemed to understand their connection to other creation stories and other sacred texts.

Inspired by my colleague Bridget Sitkoff, I started exploring Tinkercad, Thingiverse and NVBots. (We are lucky to have two new NVBots on campus.) Bridget offered a training and shared a bunch of resources and, more than that, she offered open doors to her lab and her printers. (The latter doors were smaller.) Throughout the project, Bridget provided many levels of support, from file formatting to filament color. I appreciated this greatly.

It occurred to me that having students design an “artifact” from their own myths could be a way to have them revisit their writing while thinking more widely about design, plus the possibilities provided by the software and hardware. I had done some thinking on the topic of 3D printing before and even completed a project of my own. That said, this was a leap. I wasn’t sure I could make it work and I was hesitant to do all this leading up to Parent’s Weekend, but I had a hunch and I wanted to see if we could make it work. We did in a major way.

We structured the project in the following sequence:

Step 1) Outline the parameters of the project providing resources and key vocabulary.

Step 2) Create student accounts for Project Ignite, which also works as a login for Tinkercad since both are Autodesk products. Work through some of the tutorials there.

Step 3) Play around with Tinkercad: tools, shapes, views, holes, grouping, etc.

Step 4) Explore premade designs we found on STLFinder. I was amazed by the number and variety of Mesoamerican designs there: everything from pyramids to jewelry to deities.

Step 5) Finalize and troubleshoot the designs and share the .stl file with me.

Step 6) Export the .stl file to the NVBots site.

Step 7) Watch the projects print: which I did incessantly via the live look in and later, the time-lapse view.

Step 8) Unveil the printed pieces on Parent’s Day and give students an opportunity to talk about their myth, their artifact and their design choices. What choices did they make in their writing? Why? How is their writing representative of the myths we read and the ideas we considered? What did they learn about Tinkercad? About design and printing? What would they do differently if they could do this project over? How could they apply this process to projects in art, literature, science or history?

I asked myself these same questions and I am at work on my responses. I’m also asking these questions.

Would I do it again? Yes, 100%. I’d build in more time for tutorials and I would insist that they explore the templates from STLFinder, Tinkercad and NVBots Library more carefully. I would like to see them take more design cues and with that, more risks. I would also build in more time for the question on what they learned in the process. In our case it was “Go!” time for Friday.

What did I notice as students went to work? A ton!

  • I noticed they saw it as curious and then pretty cool that we were doing all this in Spanish class.
  • I noticed that parents and students alike were impressed by the final product and the writing and design process.
  • I noticed that since Spanish is the lingua franca of the classroom, their ability to process what they were doing and thinking aloud was at time stunted. That said, from the vocabulary I provided to the words and structures that came up on the fly, we made progress.
  • I noticed they need a better sense of scale and proportion, especially as it related to the metric system.
  • I noticed that the multi-directional if not multi-dimensional subject matter made thinking about design easier than it might have been otherwise.
  • I noticed that some students thrived in the design rendering in Tinkercad and others thrived in narration.
  • I noticed that we could create drawings in Google Drawing–original creations, shapes or combinations–and then export these as .svg files to be “tinkered” with later, and then exported as .stl files for printing.
  • I noticed that an exercise like this may help students think about applications of 3D printing technologies, from prosthetics to athletic wear to fashion.
  • I noticed that this was a highly collaborative project: teachers were learners–I was!–and students taught each other, critiquing, challenging and cheering along the way.
  • I noticed that failing here, where we were all learners and teachers, was easier and more accepted. I couldn’t take off points–I had to help find a fix. Students seemed to get that from the beginning. One student chose to free hand her form. This was a great leap, but unfortunately she had trouble making the thickness and angle work so it would print properly. That said, this was a great example of failing forward.