last day buzzer prep

A 3D printing unit inspired by toys created by Lenape Native Americans

Pioneer Luigi Cicala creates a "maker" unit to enhance the second graders' exploration into the Lenape Indians at The Brearley School.

For years, second grade students at The Brearley School have studied the culture of the Lenape Native Americans in homeroom Social Studies. A much-beloved field trip each Fall to the Trailside Nature Museum on the 4,400-acre Ward Pound Ridge Reservation provides an opportunity to see a real Wigwam, learn about tools created by indigenous peoples, and imagine how they lived.

A tour guide boils water using rocks heated in a campfire, starts another fire from scratch with a drill made from a stick and natural plant fibers, and shows Neolithic tools made from stone, like axes and adzes...

Neolithic Tools
Neolithic Drill

...but the real hit is the “toys” made by native peoples from the materials available to them. Students throw darts fabricated by tying feathers around dried corn husks, toss and catch football-size balls created from tanned hides, and attempt to “catch” a fish made from polished horn by poking a stick through a hole carved through its middle.


Buzzer Student Playing

Lenape star spinner
Sample Lenape Toy

The students soon figure out that these “toys” in fact served the role of preparing young people like them to acquire vital skills relating to hunting: hand to eye coordination, throwing strength, and dexterity in general. One toy in particular that evokes using a bow and arrow is always a hit. This “spinner” toy features a wooden disk carved into a stellated shape, with two holes drilled in the center. With twine threaded through the holes, and additional sticks tied to that twine to serve as handles, the disk can be wound up. This winding action creates a great deal of tension in the twine that can be released by pulling the handles apart. The disk spins, and the resistance is considerable. Students feel like they are drawing a bowstring, developing the skills and strength necessary to hunt like the Native Americans who once lived here.

A classroom teacher reached out to me to create a “Maker” unit in the Class II homerooms that would connect meaningfully to this field trip. This year was the first iteration of the “Lenape Buzzer Toy” unit, and I am happy to share it here with the Ultimaker community.

As a studio art teacher (and parent) who once studied Computer Science, my goals include lots of hands-on making - a craft-centric approach - as well as using simple materials, encouraging kids to find and follow a sequence of steps that might not work the first (or even the fifth!) time, and limiting screen time. I want students to develop their “grit” and be ready to understand and enjoy algorithms, prototyping, iterative design, and “debugging” programs when they encounter those ideas in the curriculum in later years. I hope they will find parallels between future computer science and engineering activities, and earlier fun, hands-on projects grounded in the pre-digital history of art, design, and engineering.

Meeting 1

I brought some printed out photos from the field trip to homeroom and had each student in the circle make a comment about what they remembered. With lots of photos of the toys and tools, it was easy to direct the conversation toward addressing the question of what materials Native Americans used to make these objects and what purpose they served. We decided that we did not have horn, bone, shell, or wood to make the spinners - but I had a way to do it out of construction paper.


Lenape buzzer working by hand

I showed how artists draw complicated shapes by overlapping multiple different simple shapes - so a six pointed star can be made by drawing a hexagon first, then adding triangles. Students made up their own shapes and shape combinations.

I then introduced the concept of templates: a tracing of the final shape can be reused on other pieces of paper to help us create multiple copies of the same shape. Students cut out 6 to 10 copies of spinner shapes from multiple pieces of construction paper, then glued them together to create a relatively thick stack of papers in this shape.

I then rolled the Ultimaker Original+ that we keep on a cart into the room, and showed the machine 3D printing a similar shape. Students made the connection between the layered shapes they created and the layers of the 3D print. They also saw that we could substitute plastic - a material all too readily available in our culture - for the wood or bone “spinners” of the Lenape.

Meeting 2


student stls from Doodle3D


buzzer printing  Ultimaker

Computer Education teachers later met with the same students that I saw and taught them basic iPad skills and how to use Doodle3D. Each of about 60 kids in the grade drew a shape on the iPad that they thought would work as a spinner. Their results were exported as STLs, and over the following weeks, adults 3D printed their creations at an appropriate scale, saving them to assemble all the grade’s toys at once together as a group.

Meeting 3

Finally, I returned to the homeroom with ziplock bags that contained the string, small sticks, and each student’s 3D printed “spinner.” Assembly was tricky: at this age there is a wide range of aptitude for threading string and tying knots quickly, using a girth hitch around sticks, and patiently adjusting or repairing work as needed, but the students helped each other readily. Their feedback at the end was almost entirely positive, as was that of the teachers involved - version 1.0 looks like a hit!


students having fun with buzzers at end

Of course, with older students, more programming or direct involvement with the 3D printing process (writing BlockScad code and using Ultimaker Cura, for instance, instead of just drawing on an iPad with one’s finger) is an attractive possibility. Adjust the recipe as you see fit!