Paul Harter, the creator of Printcraft, shares his passion for 3D design and 3D printing as well as his opinions about engaging children with these technologies.
Printcraft started as a project with my own children, but seems to have captured the imagination of kids and technologists the world over. As a result, I find it has raised some interesting questions about technology education.
I have a share in a Thing-O-Matic 3D printer and my sons wanted to design things to print on it. However most CAD applications are quite hard to learn at eleven or eight years old. They are both adept at the video game Minecraft, and capitalising on this, I wrote a script to create printable 3D models from within Minecraft. It worked so well that I put it online in an easy to use web service: Printcraft.
Several groups around the world, from Oslo to Toronto, now regularly use Printcraft to build and play. I decided to take a small stand at the 3D Print Show in London to try and gauge wider interest in the project. The response was amazingly positive — from 3D printing industry leaders to children, artists and educators.
So what makes the idea of Printcraft so compelling? Once you think about it, Minecraft and 3D printing seem made for each other. Minecraft is a building game, a bit like virtual Lego, in which children build amazing three-dimensional objects with their friends. Printcraft allows them to take their creations out of the game and print them with 3D printers.
Printcraft is, at heart, just the idea of bringing together two existing technologies — 3D printing and the video game Minecraft. There is not a lot of new technology or complex programming involved in Printcraft, rather there is some clever glue to facilitate the export of models from the game for 3D printing. I was not the first to come up with the idea either. Other notable projects include MIT’s Minecraft.Print and Mineways. Printcraft is, however, the first to require no software download or installation apart from standard Minecraft, and to provide a very simple online service for children to use.
Although Printcraft may be one of the most basic of all possible ways to create models, it does throw up a very interesting technical insight — using a game engine in this way brings something novel to CAD: a collaborative voxel-based modelling tool. This cross fertilisation of gaming and CAD technologies may even spawn other more advanced tools.
What next for Printcraft? As well as being enormous fun I think it is exciting as an educational tool. Could playing a video game really have a place in schools? I like to think it might. There is a change in children’s attitudes towards making things. It is just a little cooler than it was a few years ago. This reflects a wider shift in attitudes towards creating and building the objects we all use. Maker Faires and FabLabs are springing up, up-cycled fashion is in the shops, and localism and increased self-sufficiency are part of a growing DIY ethic. Making things yourself is becoming more fashionable. This is a good thing in a country that needs to rebuild its manufacturing sector. We have to ask what can we teach our children that is most helpful — for them and for society?
Since Eric Schmidt delivered his devastating condemnation of the UK ‘s teaching of computing in last year’s MacTaggart lecture, there has been a significant shift in thinking on how computing is taught in schools. The same kind of shift may be happening for the Design and Technology curriculum in UK schools and there may be an appetite for innovative pedagogic resources.
It is all too easy to provide ‘effective’ teaching modules for technological subjects that teach and test for specific competences. All too easy to think that this would be useful to industry and all too easy to perceive them as a cost-effective way to prepare our children for a globalised and highly competitive job market. Such a strategy would be a terrible mistake, failing to equip children with the skills they really need and failing to provide industry with the flexible and inventive technologists and designers they need.
There are no jobs in software or technology in which a single set of skills learnt at school or college will suffice — everyone needs to become a competent autodidact to survive and continue working in this rapidly changing environment. Students need to learn the habits of problem solving and self-directed research, and also gain the confidence to exercise discrimination and judgement. They need not to just be autodidacts, they need to be collaborative-didacts, able to learn from and teach those they work with.
One of the exciting aspects of Minecraft as an educational tool, is that is that it brings with it a culture of collaborative learning and knowledge sharing. Mojang, the creators of Minecraft, have never published instructions to their complex multiplayer game. Instead, children the world over are using chat, YouTube and wikis to teach themselves, and each other, to play the game they enjoy. In doing so they are being introduced to the same set of tools that I use daily as a professional technologist, and they are becoming quite adept at using them. At the 3D Printshow I met several children who were familiar with GitHub and keen to discuss the detailed content of my code.
And why teach 3D printing at all? We may, or may not be on the verge of a manufacturing revolution, but either way the best thing about 3D printing is already here — the simple thrill of seeing your virtual creations come to life. This thrill brings with it a sense of ownership and gives children a confidence in designing and manufacturing objects. “I made that.” At the very least 3D printing familiarises children with many of the essential technologies and processes of modern manufacturing, from design through to delivery. If they are to grow up into a world where we all manufacture objects as easily as we now print documents, they need to be ready.
In playing with Printcraft children work collaboratively, think about design, physical constraints, cartesian space, material properties, aesthetics, process control, conflict resolution — and they get to hold their creations in their hands. It’s priceless!