Prisms and the Design Lab

Prisms and the Design Lab
Originally uploaded by anselm23

Today, I took the plunge. I moved two study halls permanently out of my classroom and into the Design Lab, around the corner and down the hall. As kids finished their homework, I put them to work on various problems and projects around the Lab — one to design a second poster for the upcoming Drama Club production (I showed her how to knoll — of course), one to build a tetrahedron using a paper plate (for use in these mad geometry experiments [will the day ever come when people shudder in terror at the approach of a mad geometer the way we currently fear mad scientists? Probably not]). I ruined a glue gun (I may be able to fix it, if I open it up and remove all the extra melted glue from the interior surfaces… sigh), printed three Green Lantern rings (which I’m using around school as portable prizes for quality Design Thinking solutions engineered by kids), and a couple of secret decoder rings for use in the third, fourth and fifth grades. (A first grade teacher refused one… she said secrets and secret messages weren’t a good idea among four and five year olds, and I think I would agree with that).

One of the things that I love about the 3D printer is that I can now print objects that serve multiple purposes, like the Green Lantern rings and the secret decoder rings (which are really just miniature Caesar Cipher devices)… One, they get kids thinking about the power of 3D printers to transform their world. Two, they help set the stage for the Design Lab to be a cave of wonders, from which extraordinary things emerge from time to time. Three, they get kids thinking about designing and building and creating things of their own.

My boss complimented me today on the poster I designed for the Drama Club. He said he thought it was awesome.

This weekend, I talked with some engineer friends of mine, and showed them photos of the Design Lab. Scott had the most important thing to say, though. He said, “there’s not enough junk.”

I asked him what he meant. He replied,

Thomas Edison got to visit a museum which was supposed to be a representation of his lab, where he’d done all his work. He told the curators, ‘you have to put in a pile of junk. The junk is the stuff that you use to build the next project.’ The curators asked Edison where the junk came from, and Edison said, “It’s the detritus and byproducts of your last project, of course. You have to save all that stuff, and re-use it in the newer projects. Just because it was a failure the first time doesn’t mean it’s not going to work the next time, or work for some completely different project. So in any lab, there’s got to be a junk pile.”

So, I’ve made one of my goals for the design lab to produce interesting junk. I envy Andrew Carle his pinball machines and his MakerLab equipment and his Arduino and Scratch skills and his robots. Really I do. But baby steps. It’s important to generate interesting junk… and these prisms built of paper are interesting junk. They tell visiting kids and adults a story about the kinds of things that can happen in the Design Lab.

Via Flickr:
Thanks to and some experimentation in the Design Lab over the last few days, I’ve built the following shapes or structures: tetrahedron (foreground), octohedron (second in), merkhaba (3D 8-pointed star), icosahedron, and Sierpinski’s Pyramid. It’s a pretty impressive collection of shapes, and as I learn to do more with them (and learn some other folding patterns!), more things should become possible.

The empty holes in the icosahedron bother me, and I’m tempted to figure out a re-design of it so that I can build a complete sphere. But I haven’t gotten there yet. In the meantime, though, I really… really! … want to do a soccer ball now.


  1. Interesting point to consider…I caught the tail end of an interview on an NPR station Sunday with a guy who is either preparing to or is already offering for sale patterns for 3D printers that can be used to create…working handguns. He’s an advocate for gun ownership and for allowing people to get weapons without having to go through official channels….I wish I had heard more of it….

    • I don’t think the technology is there yet. I mean, maybe it is, but my machine can’t do it. The parts that Moira (that’s the name of this particular machine) prints are basically just made of ribbons of plastic heat-fused together. The seams are irregular and weirdly folded, and they’re neither air- nor water-tight. I can’t even print a whistle that sounds off correctly.

      Which is not to say that the tech isn’t moving in that direction. The guys at the FabLab at MIT printed a working flute in their CNC 3d printer, which used drops of liquid metal like a 3D inkjet printer, as I understand it. And there are very complex things you can do with a CNC router/driller. So we’re getting to the point where you could get a set of instructions and .stl files for printing a gun, and print one. I’m just not sure it would be a reliable weapon.

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