Solving authentic problems with students

The authenticity spark: One school’s journey from 3D printed prosthetics to problem banks

How often do your gifted students get the opportunity to solve authentic problems? Pioneer Rich Lehrer is here to share his experience of using 3D printing at Brookwood School as a catalyst for student empowerment.


design process

Nearly four years ago, twelve Brookwood School 8th graders and I became one of the first school groups to build a 3D printed prosthetic device for a child when we created a Robohand for my son, Max. In addition to being a transformative experience for all involved, this project set us on a journey of innovative designing and making that has benefitted our students in countless ways, that currently manifests itself in a number of programs at our school, and has allowed Brookwood School to move to the forefront of a movement centered around the use of 3D printing to solve authentic problems in students’ school, community, and world.



There were a number of factors that allowed us to effectively translate this original project into a 3D printing program steeped in authenticity. Although we did not have a 3D printer of our own at the time, we were able to pair up with a local school that did, and when they graciously printed the components that we needed to create not just an interesting student project, but a piece of assistive technology that actually worked, our school community quickly developed a collective understanding of the potential of this technology. Several months after a video of our students presenting the Robohand to Max, who then used it to pick up items, was released, a number of generous Brookwood families stepped forward to make donations of printers and we quickly had a thriving 3D printing program framed by a school commitment to use them for students designing and community problem solving.


Interestingly, because this project has established such a strong case for involving our students in the designing and engineering of solutions to real life problems, we did not experience the pressure that it is my sense that many schools feel to justify the purchase by simply “getting printing”. But this was a time when there were few educational resources to help educators undertake these sorts of projects. Being anxious to capitalize on the buzz that our Robohand project had created, and leverage the high levels of student interest we had begun to see, I quickly began looking for ways to involve our students in other authentic 3D making experiences.



As I began to look for design challenges in my immediate life that I could use to learn 3D modeling skills, I set out to look for items my family and I needed: new pieces for my Max’s Brio train set, replacement pieces for board games around our house, small dowels to repair a broken chair - and I quickly realized that I was surrounded by problems in need of a design solution.  So, during the summer of 2014, I created the Brookwood 3D Design Problem Bank. Essentially a dedicated website on which adults in our school could post problems needing solutions and from which students could choose design challenges, the goal of this initiative was not simply to involve students in designing solutions to real life problems but also to mobilize a community, teach them about this new technology and the types of problems it could solve, and have them become the source of these opportunities.

broken toys
another broken toy

bagel cutter

In our Problem Bank, which continues to thrive and grow three years later, community members make a commitment to the concept of “the good problem” - a legitimate problem in need of a designed solution, but one that community members are prepared to pass to students to solve so that they might gain experience solving real life problems, learn design/engineering skills, and also see themselves as empowered and engaged community members. As problems are posted to the curated website, students from different grades and in different settings then select problems from the bank and set about entering into a reciprocal design relationship with the “poster,” creating prototypes and first iterations and receiving regular feedback to guide the creation of an effective solution.

We have created a number of unique approaches that are contributing to the effectiveness of our Problem Bank innovation. Among these have been the development of a 10-point diagnostic tool that allows our student to determine if a posted problem is actually a good fit for this work, a commitment to encouraging students to first prototype with conventional materials (cardboard, clay, etc.), and a system whereby students first print “design slices” of their solutions - thin versions of their invention or a “footprint” of their design that not only allows them to quickly move through the design cycle many times but reduces print times and material waste. Additionally, in the past two years, we have begun to move our Problem Bank work out of our school and into our community. In our “D-Zign Kidz” initiative, each 6th grade student is part of a project in which they work with seniors from a neighborhood residence to find problems common to seniors, prototype, and develop solutions to problems generated within this facility and posted to a dedicated Problem Bank.



Simply put, it has been exciting to see this idea really starting to gain momentum. An article in Make Magazine that followed my presentation at the NYC World Maker Faire pushed the number of views of the Problem Bank to over 1000 in the week after it ran and it has been heartening to hear from many educators who see the same potential in this work as I do. It is my belief that every 3D printer in every country should have a companion Problem Bank that empowers the people who interact with the printer to see themselves as empowered community change-makers. Additionally, I am incredibly excited about the prospect of this work to scale globally. Should 3D printing technology spread and printers become as ubiquitous as personal computers and mobile devices, the potential for schools around the world to connect with each other through the posting and solving of each other’s problems continues to grow.

As evidenced by our initial Robohand project, given the chance and the right circumstances, students have incredible passion, will, and skills to create effective solutions. How exciting to now have access to a technology that provides such a clear, concrete, and tangible example of this power.

For more information on Rich Lehrer and the Problem Bank, visit Rich's website.

For more information on Rich Lehrer's 3D Printed Assistive Devices Curriculum, visit Rich's Overview.