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Making and learning with real artifacts

By Glen Bull
October 29, 2014
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Making has the potential to open students' minds by giving them tools for putting objects together and taking them apart. In the maker classroom, students learn by creating.

For students who are investigating science and engineering concepts or exploring history, the Smithsonian Institution now provides digitized 3D models of artifacts from its collections to support making in the classroom. The Smithsonian x3D initiative employs multiple 3D capture methods to allow users to rotate, measure and explore every nook and cranny of an object online. The website features a 3D viewer that is compatible with most web browsers, with few modifications, as well as Android devices.

Teachers can find models ranging from a woolly mammoth skeleton to the Wright flyer. These two examples alone provide gateways for both history and science exploration, with hooks for discussing biology, paleontology, engineering, physics, math and history — making the x3D browser a valuable interdisciplinary tool.

Users can also download the digitized scans and print them on 3D printers, allowing students to explore the physical models kinesthetically or innovate by altering them to become inventors and creators themselves. Bringing 3D technology into the classroom gives students the power to mold their own learning in ways that were previously impossible.

Due to limited space, only about 1 percent of the Smithsonian collections are on display at any given time, leaving millions of artifacts resting on shelves below visitors' feet, above their heads and in off-site warehouses. Digitization of these artifacts allows the world access to some of these hidden treasures and can give students the chance to get personal with the objects.

The Smithsonian has provided 22 digitized models on the site and is collaborating with teachers to identify other artifacts that will be useful for learning and teaching. Here are a few examples of the ways teachers and students can use Smithsonian artifacts in the classroom:

Reassemble dinosaur bones. The Smithsonian now offers digitized models of a wooly mammoth skeleton and a dolphin skeleton. Over the next several years, the museum will also add its new Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton as it is constructed. LincolnWith these models, science teachers can 3D print copies of each skeleton and allow students to examine the variations in bone structure to see how animals with different diets and climates evolved differently.

Get inside one of history's keenest minds. During a pilot collaboration with the Smithsonian, some schools downloaded a life mask of Abraham Lincoln to explore how x3D can be applied to social studies. "We are using the Lincoln life masks to allow students to approach a complex mind in a tangible way," said educator Cory Killbane of William Penn Charter School. An ebook will combine 3D scans of the Lincoln life masks with an interdisciplinary learning experience for grades 8-12, including a guided historical discovery of Lincoln to teach students Common Core-aligned historical thinking skills.

Explore another culture. The Smithsonian x3D project provides a means for studying culturally sensitive objects even after they've been returned to their owners for ceremonial use. For example, students can examine in detail a clan crest hat in the form of a killer whale rising out of the ocean, made in southern Alaska in 1900. TinglitThe original artifact was returned to the Tinglit clan in 2005, but it remains available to educators through a high-resolution scan made with the clan's permission.

Redesign famous inventions. The Smithsonian is developing 3D scans of key inventions from American history that form the basis for a science and engineering curriculum. In the future, educators will be able to access full scans of the Morse-Vail telegraph, the Charles Page motor and other major inventions to teach multiple physical science and engineering principles, such as electromagnetism. Schools will be able to download scans of these inventions and adapt them, then create prototypes on their own 3D printers.

This is just the beginning. More artifacts and inventions will be added to the Smithsonian x3D project over time, opening the horizons for both exploration and innovation in K-12 classrooms.

What types of objects would you like to download and print?

Glen Bull is a professor of instructional technology and co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the Curry School of Education.

Abrianna Nelson is a high school English and journalism teacher and a board member of the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers.