Mad Makers Lab: A 3D puzzler

Our after school group has been designing for and creating 3D prints for the better part of two years. In that time our students have become more comfortable and shown progress with their design process. That being said, at the beginning of our 2016/17 school year their work began to plateau and multiple students began to see themselves as masters of our design program. Since the students we work with are in kindergarten to fifth grade, developmental progress is our primary concern and with those finding ways to challenge our students when they become complacent is delicate but exhilarating part of our work. Therefore, the predicament we as educators had to consider was what design skills our students are required to develop to challenge them and initiate their next learning trajectory.

So, after great consideration, we were able to determine that the mathematical precision of our student’s design was the aspect that required their attention. By presenting them with a design challenge that emphasized math we could inspire our students to continually develop.

On April 3rd 2017, the Mad Makers Lab makerspace, we presented our challenge to design a 3D puzzle of a United States monument.

The students we encouraged to participate were between 8-12 years old. The students who responded most enthusiastically were 8-10 years of age, and in second and third grades. At our first Mad Makers Lab meeting participants were given their first assignment to research and study one or more examples of a 3D puzzle and its pieces. Their findings were both diverse and creative, which made the decision of a specific template to use both difficult and time-consuming. Knowing that the time and effort required for the design process would be lengthy, we decided on four separate template models.



All participants were then taught the concept of a reference and how to use one, they were also given strict instructions not to copy their reference, but rather create their own variations.

Our subsequent meetings were design sessions, which proved to be very challenging for many students, as they struggled to fully grasp the multitude of sides that were required when constructing a puzzle piece. For this reason, most of their initial sketches were two dimensional studies and limited to only one, two or three sides.



To make the task easier, I decided to produce a multitude of examples that described the range of connections that were possible. At our next meeting, I presented students with a cardboard puzzle piece, a 3D piece with only two sides fitting and receiving, and finally a 3D piece limited to five sides that could fit or receive.

Our discussion focused on the limitations of each puzzle piece and more importantly how a flat side didn’t establish a connection with another piece. The participants were then given some time to play with the pieces so that they could now consider the range of their capabilities. Surprisingly most students required little time for experimentation and quickly moved onto creating a new design. A great deal of excitement filled our laboratory and students discussed ideas as they worked. With each successful variation of a puzzle piece came more ideas and sharing. When our meeting concluded, we reviewed by having each student share one success, one challenge and one lingering point of interest. Students then departed our laboratory with great conviction and an excitement for the work to come. I then reviewed each student's design privately to evaluate what challenges might arise in our next meeting.



Over the time that elapsed between this meeting and the next I printed specific student models so that we could analyze the product. The results, while predictable, were incredibly helpful for my educational objectives. The printed pieces had inconsistent measurements within their components that received or fit another piece, which meant that pieces were unable to fit together universally. This meant that in our next session I could present them with the necessity of obtaining mathematically specific measurements of each pieces component when editing their pieces.



One of the perks of working with students ages 8-10 years old is that they respond very enthusiastically to having a design printed, which means much disappointment can be easily avoided when presenting them with a print and the specific areas that require improvement. Students are more than happy to get back to work on their design and attempt to make the changes necessary to complete their design and complete another print.

For the following two weeks, students worked intensively: refining their design, double-checking their work and even producing more creative designs. This resulted in additional printing and experimentation with their products. This is when I began to observe their conception of the design process take large developmental steps. Students worked seamlessly with one another, editing each other’s work, while also presenting multiple puzzle piece templates for consideration. Confident that we had produced enough work to begin our design of the entire puzzle itself, we took pride in our work and progress and turned our attention to the selection of the United States monument that would be represent the completed puzzle.



One of the many reasons I love working with students in elementary school is the way that a student's education can present itself throughout the year: when selection a U.S. monument, a fourth-grade student who had become a regular attendee of our lab raised his hand and suggested that we use the subject of his most recent social studies presentation the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington DC. A quick google image search resulted in four students and I hovering over a computer in deep consideration of what we now gazed upon for the museum was a perfect fit for what completed solution should be. The structure of the museum itself was relatively simple, however, it had numerous subtle variations that would lend itself to a specific aesthetic solution, while also having printable details that would also make it a pleasing art object. All participants agreed that this was our completed puzzle and became very excited by the opportunities and challenges that it would present as a design. So, on June 7th 2017, we had concluded the first phase of our puzzle challenge. We had successfully designed and printed numerous 3D puzzle pieces that could interact with one another universally, we had made great strides in our ability to exact specific measurements of those pieces to make their interaction successful, and we had selected the final solution for our puzzle.