“I was hooked” on 3D printing

STEM Build 3D-printed models

As soon as the object started forming in the 3D printer, Melissa Ramirez knew she was onto something big.

In spring 2016, Ramirez, a teaching assistant professor and Microbiology Certificate Coordinator in the Department of Biological Sciences, attended a Libraries Makerspace workshop on 3D printing. “I printed out a pattern of a small virus that we had found on thingiverse.com,” she says. “I was hooked, and I kept looking for cool things to print that I thought I might be able to use in my classes.”

Fast-forward to this year, and that realization of the power of 3D-printed teaching tools has led to a $75,000 National Science Foundation grant for Ramirez and assistant teaching professor Claire Gordy for their proposal "STEM BUILD: A network of undergraduates, faculty, and makers utilizing 3D printing to build understanding through Inclusive Learning Design." The one-year award period begins in December 2020, after which Ramirez and Gordy plan to submit a full, five-year proposal.

“The Libraries and the Makerspace is where this whole project was first conceived,” Ramirez says. “Adam Rogers (Head of Making & Innovation Studio) and Makerspace staff like Colin Nickels and Justin Haynes have been critical in making this project work.”

STEM Build logo
With the current grant, STEM BUILD hopes to establish a program to earn five years of NSF funding

After the initial workshop in 2016, Ramirez connected with Gordy, whose interests are focused on accessibility in the sciences. They saw the potential to use 3D printing technology to address some of the gaps in their approaches to teaching. Combining their teaching expertise with the input of their students, they have created many types of 3D-printed manipulatives that they have paired with guided-inquiry-based lesson plans. These manipulatives have been used in many different types of biological sciences classes here at NC State.

Ramirez and Gordy aren’t just interested in having cool models to add a hands-on touch to their lessons; they see 3D printing as a way to increase the diversity of the country’s STEM workforce. Because scientific discovery benefits from the work “of individuals with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences,” they believe that “it is necessary to develop new ways of teaching complex concepts that are engaging and effective for all learners” (quotes are from the grant’s abstract).

Interactive, 3D-printed cellular and molecular puzzles are accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. By handling a well-designed model, blind or visually impaired students have an alternative to a printed diagram on a textbook page to learn about biological processes and concepts.

With the NSF funding, Ramirez and Gordy will bring three teams from other institutions consisting of faculty, 3D-printing experts, and undergraduate research assistants to NC State for a training summit. The teams will create a Tactile Teaching Tool-Guided Inquiry Learning (TTT-GIL) activity to be implemented at all three institutions. Once they return home, the teams will continue prototyping and refining their models and assess the effectiveness of their TTT-GIL activity in different classroom settings.

“I'm proud we were able to support some of our excellent faculty and a project which specifically aims to support diversity and accessibility in the sciences,” Rogers says of the Libraries’ sustained involvement, which included hosting a pilot Tactile Teaching Tools workshop in 2018 on which Ramirez and Gordy built their proposal.

A tactile model of a protein
Students in a Protein Interactions class use a model of a DNA single-stranded binding (Ssb) protein to analyze aspects of the protein structure

“They've helped us on the technical side of things with design and printing,” Ramirez says. “But they've also just allowed us to use the Makerspace, done workshops for us, and enthusiastically supported this project every step of the way.”

“One of the most important things that the Makerspace folks have done is create a truly collaborative space where everyone learns from one another,” she continues. “I love that we can go to the Makerspace and say, ‘We have this idea, but we don't know how to make it,’ and right away you have people there brainstorming with you. It's just a really fun, really special place on campus.”

Written on Sep 29, 2020