Forget popsicle sticks and elmers, Ga. fourth graders use 3D printer for class project

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When you think about your old elementary school class projects, you probably think about popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue.  But times are changing. 

At Glanton Elementary in Grantville, Georgia, students are using a 3D printer to redesign and build a common medical device. Forget Project Runway. This is Project Knee Brace.

Gifted teacher Valerie Buchanan has challenged her students to design and build a knee brace for a child.

"What we want them to learn is the engineering process, the thought process, the higher thinking skills,” Buchanan says.

Buchanan’s husband, a physical therapist with HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Newnan, gave the kids a primer in how the knee works and how a brace supports an injured knee.  Then, they started practicing on models of the knee.

“They were manipulating the knee to see which way it could move and which way it couldn't move,” says Mrs. Buchanan. “And they just took it and ran with it."

They're not just potential biomedical engineers learning about design; they're also getting a lesson in democracy.

The student brainstorm ideas and share their opinions.   Then their group selects a design plan.

“And it may not be one person's idea,” says Buchanan.  “They can pick and choose."

Judiah Hill and her teammates are the closest to a workable brace.

"It's amazing,” Hill says. “Because, if I didn't have the team, my mind would have been all off the box."

Her teammate, Kendarius Ward, says it’s been challenging.

“To figure out how it is going to work, and which idea,” he says.  “But it's also fun. Since it is a real knee brace and we're just in fourth grade."

Bristol Nestlelette says, “It’s hard getting all the details right. And getting it all together in the right pieces."

It's not real bones. It's just like plastic with rubber bands and tape."

Once the team members lock down their final design, they use Tinker CAD 3-D software to build the brace on their laptops. 

The software is connected to a 3D printer churning away in Glanton Elementary’s media center, which is already building version two of the group's knee brace.  The process takes about 8 hours. Right now it’s printing version #2 of the knee brace.

The first one looked great, Kendarius Ward says.

"But it didn't fit on the fake knee that we had,” he says. “Then, because it didn't fit and it was just like this,  some of us asked if it could be a cup holder.  And could we take it home as a souvenir?"

It's too soon to say whether their still-under-construction brace will work better.  If not, it's back to the design table to try again.

"You have to be willing to let go and let them be in charge,” says Buchanan. “But it's a lot of fun to watch them work and watch them talk about their ideas and put it all together to make it work. Because we want them to know there's life beyond school."