3D Research Writing

On November 15, 2012, as part of “The Seminar on Innovative Teaching” series, the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute hosted a talk by Tim Owens titled “3D Printing and Making Across the Curriculum.” Owens, Instructional Technology Specialist at the University of Mary Washington, invited us to join him in an exploration of how the ability to use 3D printers to create real physical objects impacts the way students (of any level in many disciplines) come to understand their own agency, particularly the agency of producing. I was particularly interested in Owens’ Makerbots and Mashups course, a freshman seminar style course where students were immersed in the process of “making” (on a number of levels), and even more interested in the self-reflective blog his class kept chronicling their collaborations, experiments, and valuable missteps.


I left that seminar feeling particularly charged about the possibilities that 3D printing presents for the first year writing class. I kept thinking about the way that Owens spoke about using the process of 3D printing as a way to “problem solve”—to enable students to explore what it might mean (and look like) to actually create something that could “represent a solution.”


For the past few years I’ve assigned a “digital essay” project that parallels the 7-10 page research paper students in Composition I and II write. My logic behind adding in the mysteriously vague digital component was that I was curious if student writing would noticeably change when the somewhat traditional research/argument driven paper joined hands with something visual and much more abstract. And, student writing did change—thesis statements were articulated through the process of creating the digital project and overall, the research papers were/are noticeably better. Students were/are excited by and invested in their own work in a way they hadn’t been before, or at least I hadn’t seen this level of enthusiasm in previous papers.


I can’t say that I was surprised by these results. I expected student work to change, and I keep working on this project because I love watching how writing grows and changes. Cynthia Selfe discusses the “use-value” of the “digital story” as “we’re not going to teach students to be Spielbergs or anyone like that. We’re going to teach them to be good rhetoricians who can deploy any number of modes of expression and media to make meaning. We’re going to teach them to use all available means to accomplish responsible rhetorical ends.” And, by encouraging students to be proficient in these multiple modes of expression, we are also opening up a space for the digital to speak to the written and vice versa.


Much of the writing about pedagogy and 3D printing focuses either on engineering majors or art/design students, although it is clear that the process of creating, designing, editing, and actually making an object mirrors many of the talents we want to foster in first year writing courses. As Angela Chen points out, “nearly every discipline could benefit from the ability to easily create objects from customized designs.”

So, when I learned that there was a Makerbot on campus, I felt certain that even if I didn’t fully understand what 3D printing meant, it would present students with another tool that might change their relationship to writing. And, after Tim Owens’ talk, I felt even more sure that 3D printing should be a crucial part of Composition I because the creation of an object seemed to parallel the research paper composing process in a way that I’m still not sure I can fully articulate.

My research paper assignments are always quite scaffolded, with the idea that the assignment can be hugely broad and that students can discover their own research questions along the way. I was curious to see if the process of drafting a physical object would influence the discovery and development of the research focus, or vice versa.

Some Student Work:


The above is a student’s “first draft” of his project. Once he realized that he needed to “scrap” this idea, he also realized a number of things about his paper (and thesis statement)–mainly that his argument could be more specific and that he actually wanted to take some more risks with his analysis of the relationship between cognition and physical identity.


This image is a snapshot of this student’s process presentation–he decided to teach himself how to really “sculpt” and alter the original brain model he was working with. The process of carving symbols into a brain ended up mirroring his writing process–he had a solid first draft, and ended up realizing that he needed to really explode that draft–carve into it more specific analysis, focus on one case study related to his larger topic, etc.


The above is a series of images of another student project, which he describes as: “Iron Man’s arc reactor is a symbol of his life and ability to stay alive. I wanted to take the arc reactor and see what would happen if I built a virus that envelopes it. What originally happened was I got something that looked like a globe. So, I flattened out the virus and now you can look through the virus and see the center of the arc reactor…” This student’s paper began as an extremely vague meditation on technology and evolution. But, he was also very interested in learning the software to create his own 3D designs. What happened was that this student became very interested in creating his own original virus–which then led to the realization that his paper might really specifically focus on the current influenza situation–the way the virus overcomes the vaccine and the implications of that.


This post is meant to just be a snapshot of what happened last semester, as I begin to prepare for the coming semester’s classes, where I want to do more with 3D printing and am trying to figure out how to revise my approach. Any ideas, experiences, suggestions would be helpful and appreciated!

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