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Art + Tech: Four Lessons for Obtaining and Using Tech in Art Classes

December 23, 2014

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

When I saw the Makerbot 3-D printer, my mind immediately began whirring with ideas of how I could use it in my art classes.  The printers are expensive—thousands of dollars that I didn’t have for my classes.  When I first proposed the addition of 3-D printing to the art department, I hit the bureaucratic wall often found in public institutions, and it looked as if my plan was destined to fail.  However, I was determined.

I wrote a letter to an Austin-based company,  AGS-3D,  explaining our goals and how we would incorporate the technology into the department. When the company, which sells 3D printers, called to inform us that we would receive the printer, I asked “Why Giddings?” (my school). They told me they were excited that the printer was not going to a computer science department, but rather to an art department.  

After the donation, with one sad spool of clear filament that came with the printer, I started giving demonstrations of the amazing technology.  I soon won not only the hearts but the minds of my administrators. Soon the money was found for fifteen spools of filament and a dedicated computer with a large monitor for design work. In hindsight, I realized I had missed one important detail. I was so busy educating myself about the new technology that I didn't realize it would be a greater task to educate my administrators and the good folks around me.

2. Find an ally

I went to my principal in late summer after much research. I shared the information about using 3D printing for my art courses, and he loved the idea. He worked hard to sell this new technology and its usefulness as a teaching tool and its future implications to the people above him in the district.

As advice for anyone reading this, get at least one administrator behind you. Those guys speak the same language and hear each other more than they will hear one of the staff.

3. Fail. Learn. Try again.

I have a degree in Fine Arts, a double major in studio arts and art history and I also have my Texas teachers Certification. But a year ago with a 3D printer sitting in front of me, I realized I may need to use complicated computer-aided drafting (CAD) software in order to use the printer.

Well, it didn't work out. I had a terrible time with CAD.  Maybe it was a right-brain problem. I think it was more of an expectation problem. I want my students to make art in the virtual world. I want them to express, manipulate, design, and create, and not be limited by the rigid structures of CAD.

I then read the book, Fabricated, by Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman. It showed me that I was not “too old” or “Just not getting it.” This book assured me my concerns as an artist are legitimate, and it’s OK not to think only in rigid machine designs like a gear or cog. It also opened my eyes to new options. Software like the Autodesk 123D suite was more of what I was seeking. The suite consists of several apps which allows the designer to manipulate an object from templates or bring the outside world into the 3D printer using basic photography- much more in line with my goals as an art teacher.

4. Don’t be afraid to learn with students

My students really like the printer and think it’s cool, but they had less of the perception shift or the sense of amazement that the teachers or administrators had. Many student already knew about “slicing”, the technology that allows for the z axis in 3D printing. Many of the concepts I had to learn, the students already knew from their experience with video gaming and animation.  At many points during the first year of using our 3D printer, I was really learning along with my students.

One exciting project and build came from using the animation software Blender. Using Blender, my students created a character from the ground up. We faced many issues, and had to solve them together. At the end of the year, we made a build of the figurine. We never got it perfect, but we were proud of making something original with the printer.

Eric Mott is an art teacher at Giddings High School in Texas