3D Printers and the limits of grading

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This is what I get for going to the bathroom while a print job is in progress on “Moira” in the Design Lab: a bad print.

I don’t know: maybe my feet on the floor of the lab bounced the print head, and made it be physically on one spot on the model when in fact it was on another — a discrepancy of the mental world and the physical world failing to be in alignment. Maybe a parent, or a kid, touched the printer in the middle of the build, and shook it just slight off its rocker — an accidental daemonic possession. A gremlin fussed with the code along the way from the computer to “Moira” perhaps, or the code just isn’t that well written. Whatever it is… This kid’s design is ruined. And it’s an hour-long print job. It will be Thursday before I can try again.

Under ordinary circumstances, in an ordinary classroom, I’d have to tell this kid he failed the class. He didn’t produce a model that was worthy of the name. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t his fault: he didn’t produce a model and get it to me before the end of the day; he didn’t supervise the printer all the way through his build. All kinds of things went wrong or could have gone wrong, that he couldn’t control and aren’t his fault. All I know is that the top part of his model is offset, and the bottom is sort of sloppy… And isn’t that worth a C or a C+?

Except.

Except when was the last time you taught a fourth grader to use a 3D printer?

When was the last time you taught a fourth grader to use a 3D printer while you were still learning to use it, yourself?

The typical 3D printer is a Frankenstein’s monster of wires and gears and heating elements. It has controls written and explained in X, Y and Z, on a Cartesian grid most of my students won’t learn until seventh or eighth grade. It’s far too easy tell a student, you’re no good at this, or, this is beyond you.

But none of that is true. It’s the falsest falsity there is.

I told a mother today, “we give no grades in the design lab.” I think we dare not. Artists and architects and engineers, and for that matter great writers like Hemingway and Tolkien and Austen learned their crafts and their artistry not from being graded — but from selfish, constant, almost-obsessive trial and error.

There’s no way to replicate that with a grade on one project. There’s no way to tell if your grade should be a C+, or a graduation magna cum laude, until you know if they give up after a failure, or mark the next version 2.1 and move on.

It’s here, I think, that modern educators need to learn something from the medieval alchemists. For the product is not the thing of utmost seriousness in school. Rather, it is the child — to become physically strong through sports, mentally alert through study, creative and imaginative through the arts, empowered through distillation and refinement — that is, the discovery of errors and their gradual removal.

Not every lesson is learned all at once. In this case, a bad print isn’t a failure. It’s an opportunity for improvement.

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