Behind the Scenes: Idea Development

 In 30 days of education

Hi everyone! My name is Hannah Olson and I’m the 3D modeler here at In this post I’m going to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we develop our kits.

It all starts with an idea. Most of our ideas come from our curriculum team, who we highlighted in yesterday’s blog post. This group of individuals has a really strong background in various STEM fields of study as well as in the classroom. And, they know the standards really well. So sometimes it’s an idea of something they used to do in their classroom that they realized could be improved with a 3D kit, but more often than not, it’s an idea pulled directly from the standards. The curriculum team looks at the standards that teachers are required to cover and brainstorms ways that hands-on manipulatives can enhance the learning experience. Sometimes it’s really easy to come up with a design, sometimes it’s a bit trickier, and sometimes 3D doesn’t make sense. That’s where I come in.

Once they have an idea of something they want to try to create, they come to me. Sometimes, they come with their own sketches and other times we have a meeting where I sketch out ideas. But it always starts with a sketch. It’s important to understand what I’m going to create in two dimensions before I begin creating it in three-dimensions.

This is also why it’s very important to have a conversation with the curriculum team member before I start building everything. There are a lot of topics we cover that I didn’t know anything about until building the kit. The curriculum team has to make sure I understand the math or the science behind the kit before I will start building it. And this extra step has actually proved rather useful. I get to act as that first wall of understanding – because it I can’t understand it, then they need to come up with a better way of explaining it. I help them debunk misconceptions purely by my lack of knowledge. By the time the kit is fully developed, however, I’ve learned a lot. For instance, I may not have memorized every detail of the molecular structure of a phospholipid, but I can explain the polarity of the headgroup, why it assembles the way it does, and how the form of the cell membrane is integral to its function. And before working on our Cell Membrane Kit and Macromolecules: Lipids Kit, I couldn’t have even told you what a phospholipid was. That’s one of the reasons I’m so confident in that our product works. I learn from it every day.

But I’m getting off-track. Once we have a sketch that we both think will work, I take it into the computer. Then I start with a basic shape – a cube, cylinder, or sphere – and I start molding the shape into the design. CPALMS did a great perspectives video where I explain how I choose the basic shape I model from and how I combine shapes to create the final models – plus it addresses a Florida math standard. To learn more about how I go about 3D modeling the shape, check out our earlier post: 3D Modeling for 3D Printing: Modeling 101.

Once the design is complete, I get it ready for printing and print the first version. It is never completely ready with just a first version. Every single design ends up going through an iterative design process where we test and revise the design so that it is optimized for printing, for the classroom, and for learning. We make design changes to make it print better, use less plastic, be more user-friendly, and to make sure it works consistently.

Some kits take only a few iterations to be called finished while others take over a dozen design iterations. And sometimes, we have to step away from a design. There are limitations to what 3D printing can do and we refuse to create something sub-par. (We will cover some of the limitations of 3D printing later in this series.) Sometimes we realize the design makes more sense in 2D and would be cheaper to manufacture there while other times, we cannot get the level of precision necessary for the kit to work seamlessly. When that happens, we either go back to the drawing board or decide that this is not something 3D printing was meant for. And that’s okay. Over our time developing these kits we’ve come to realize that simply because you can 3D print something doesn’t mean you should. That’s why you don’t find useless kits in our library. They all have a purpose and a benefit that cannot be gained in every aspect from any other production method.

Image courtesy FCR-STEM. Used with permission.

Once we finally have a design that’s been tested and approved and the curriculum is finalized to work with the kit, we bring it into classrooms. FCR-STEM works with local schools and tests the kits to ensure that they work as intended. And sometimes we get feedback that the kits need to be changed or adjusted. So we make those changes. After all of that, it’s finally finished. For now. The beauty of our system is that we are continually in a place where we are able to make improvements upon our kits. If you’ve used something and have a suggestion for what would make the kit better, tell us! We can make the changes quickly and update the items in the cart so that all future prints will be immediately impacted with your change.

Have a suggestion for how to improve one of our kits? Tell us in the comments!

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