An Introduction to Understanding and Composing with 3D & Sensors

A Digital Literacy Chapter


pict of 9 media formsScience fiction has become science fact much faster than many realize. This chapter follows the extension of the digital palette into the areas of three dimensional design (3D) and sensor technology, providing unprecedented and awesome new levels of power and creativity for composing and understanding. Easy to use software and falling hardware prices have put the ability to compose with them in the hands of any child or adult with a personal digital device. In the digital palette on the right, the orange "paint" of 3D represents the software and hardware of three-dimensional design. The red "paint" represents the software and hardware for sensors and robot designs and the programming composition that they also require.

Most recently, 3D design software's capacity to control robotics technology with its innovations in the cost, size and method of 3D printers and other manufacturing devices has led revolutionary changes in the arena of "digital fabrication" ((Lipson & Kurman, 2013^); this has moved the creation of things from manufacturing tools located in factories to the desktops of our personal living spaces. Further, sensors are a critical ingredient of a long developing field, robotics, and a key feature of the rapidly developing Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded within objects. Both 3D and sensors extends the power of composition from the computer display screens of cyberspace into the makerspace everyday world of the physical. Together they are the basis for not just a new industrial revolution for both the automated creation and the digital management of any thing that we can build, own or touch, but a revolution in the way we think and live. Together they have stirred powerful forces that now play a significant role in cultural and economic development and consequently in the invention of new organizations, businesses and careers. Together they highlight the importance of creative and entrepreneurial thinking.

These ideas will in turn address some of the fundamental issues facing education as it surges further into the 21st century: engagement (motivation), assessment and professional development. In a significant cultural shift, the first generation of literacy and thinking skills, the hand-skills as discussed in the earlier reading, Evolutionary Layered Literacy (Houghton, 2013^), is getting a make-over, providing reason to transcend the boundaries of vocational education to include all students. Hands-on composition (invention, design, editing, production, testing analysis and repair) has in past decades often has been categorized as vocational education for the non-college bound. Computers are now at the heart of a new incarnation of "shop" (Eisenberg, 2011^) whose power and capacity is now extended to elementary students and younger because the computer handles increasing amounts of the necessary complexity and building dexterity. The lack of access to such knowledge for individuals and families in their own lives and in schools has led to the global emergence of community centers as makerspaces, publically available collections of digitally driven tools and combined with more manual technology. In an ironic turn of events through such community maker spaces, the creativity possible because of the highly controlled and prescriptive nature of digital technology has reinvented the meaning of public school. The nature of such centers has revitalized and implemented approaches now marginalized in most existing schools, Montessori's learner centered education, Dewey's philsophy of progressive education, Piaget's constructivism and more.

A related reading, tutorials and set of activities for this chapter that involve TinkerCad will provide direct experience to explore this line of thought. Anderson (2012^) in his book "Makers: The New Industrial Revolution" and Brynjolfsson and McAfee in their book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014), have described it in much larger and highly significant cultural terms, a new transformed version of the industrial revolution. It is but a matter of time before the 3D printers will not only make the objects, but print the controlling elements of the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators with Net access, within those objects.

As different elements of 3D and sensors are explored below, pause for a bit after each of the topics below and imagine how these ideas might be integrated into different grade levels and content areas. To review the educational goals for these areas, LearnNC provides the necessary links to these content areas and more: science (Essential Standards, thought note that the new national science standards now include engineering as a new strand), mathematics (Common Core standards), social studies (Essential Standards) and language arts (Common Core standards).

A feature of Web digital composition should also be noted. Look for the ^ symbol at the end of citations. Clicking on it will display the citation at the top of the frameset.

Before considering the implications of 3D and sensors mixed together, it is useful to focus on each individually.


Thinking and composing in different dimensions can be a bit disorienting and can require great effort and imagination. One fine example is Abbott's classic math/science fiction novella Flatworld (Abbott, 1992^). This story is sometimes is introduced in mathematics or science classes with the 30 minute movie version of it, Flatland, The Movie (2008) [2 minute Flatworld movie YouTube trailer]. Flatland's entire society including its characters are two-dimensional, only capable of seeing and moving within that framework, exploring the question of whether can they think outside their box. Perhaps because we effortlessly move and think in a three-dimensional world but must compose in two-dimensional displays on computer screens and desktop paper, it can be equally disorienting and frustrating to use a computer to position and direct a three-dimensional model on a two dimensional monitor. However, with sufficient experience, composers are efficiently working with and creating 3D objects that can appear on computer screens or in our hands. The software applications for these 3D designs or compositions are being used in 3 major ways:


3D Object Design

The idea of using software to design and create a 3D object that you can hold in your hand poses two revolutionary ideas. The first is that what once occured in some big room in a large specialized factory building can now can happen on a desktop in your bedroom office at home or the back counter-top in a classroom. This is transformation very similar to what happened to both high-speed printing over the past 50 years and to computing itself. The second is the revolutionary concept that such activity would be both safe and within the range of elementary school children's thinking and skill abilities as school activities, which also occured with printing and computing. And printing may become increasingly irrelevant and the computer has moved to our pockets and purses. This of course begs the question as to whether such 3D activity is relevant to school objectives and state competencies but that question will largely be answered in the next few years by cultural and parent demand. The larger cultural and economic implications of this potential are enormous if not staggering. This transition is not going to take 50 years and perhaps not even five years. These software composed objects will be combined with other play material that children and adolescents already own or create using paper, scissors and paste and sandpaper, hammers and saws.

3d model scanned & printed showing image in 3D software, image from wikipedia's 3d printing articleThe image on the left shows the design created with 3D software, then two objects on the keyboard that are real prints of the object using different kinds of colored plastic for different effects. All products produced by 3D printers must first be 3D software designs, simulations of reality edited on computer screens whose software designs then direct the printing process.

3D printing a physical object is similar to printing on paper in the way a print head precisely controls the placement of a liquid. In your home now, your composition, perhaps an essay created in a word processor or a photograph edited with image editing software, is sent to a paper printer; the ink continues to be placed further and further down a page until there is no more room and a new sheet is required. However, with 3D, the print head is going back to the same spot again and again, laying down liquid, spray, powder or sheets in hundreds if not thousands of layers or more. The chemical types being sprayed vary widely from baking pasta (Clark, 2012^) to hard or soft plastic to titanium; more types of printable material are added each year. Because the addition of another layer of plastic or metal may add less than 1/10 of a millimeter, the process can take minutes or hours depending on the size of the object. 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing.

The company that invented and holds the 1986 patent for the first 3D printers is 3D Systems; their facility is located about 25 miles south of Charlotte, North Carolina ("Solid Print", 2012^). They began begun as a company exclusively creating design prototypes for various businesses and other organizations. Whereas the 3D printing industry as a whole spends about 28% of its effort printing final products (Wohlers Report, 2009^), the 3D Systems company is already at 40% of their work mix. Advances in 3D printing have staggering economic and cultural implications.

3D Replicating Science Fiction

3D printing is different technically yet similiar in concept to science fiction examples which have long played with the idea of future cultures that use computers to replicate real world objects at the molecular level. See 3 Star Trek commanders exploring molecular replication, which is beyond current technology.

Watch Tom Paris order tomato soup at the replicator.

Watch Dr. Crusher interact with a replicator crash.


3D Printing Reality

The StarTrek era is still a long way off. In the 21st century we do not know how to do molecular construction of objects, but numerous steps are being taken in a direction called 3D printing. In the non-science fiction world, the range of things being replicated is much more narrow, starting with replacing items that can also be made using traditional manufacturing techniques. What is different is that such manufacturing doesn't require a factory, just digital fabrication devices. The most well known is a 3D printer. A 3D printer can even come in a briefcase (Clark, 2012^) as in the short video clip below.

The fast paced video below shows in five minutes one way the complete process might work for a wide range of users. Beginning with the complete setup of the 3D printer with a personal computer, the video shows the downloading and setup of the free software from ReplicatorG, the selection of a free design on a Web site, one example of using the software to modify the design, and the final steps to starting the printer. Not shown are the use of the software to initially create the design nor the actual printing. Video of the printer in operation will be found below.

You do not have to own a 3D printer to use the software to create designs. wcu photo of z400 3d introductory level printerAny 3D software that can produce the correct file type containing the correct printer directions can produce a file that can be used by a 3D printer. Items created on your computer can be sent as email attachments to a site that has such a printer or can be hand carried to a site on a memory card or USB drive. One such location is Engineering facility at Western Carolina University where it can be printed (once the cost is paid for). The 3D printing facility just has to have a printer with sufficient size to print the size of the object needed. Western Carolina University's Rapid Prototyping Lab has different kinds of these printers such as the Z400 model on the right.

The day will come when every town will have its own 3D printing store or stores; the first such store front was opened by Bot in September of 2012 in New York city on Mulberry Street which provides 3D printing services, 3D printed gifts and two models of 3D printers costing $2,200 and $2,800 (Woollacott, 2012^).

There are also many online sites that solicit the uploading of files that will be printed and sent back via mail services: imaterialize (16 different materials and 70 possible color and finish combinations); Shapeways; and Sculpteo.

Easy to use 3D software designed for non-engineering types, for home hobby, experimental tinkerers and kids is available and undergoing steady updates. Interested learners of any age who can command a computer or mobile device are finding access and learning the spatial thinking and other skills to produce a wide range of devices (Vance, 2012^). A number of different software options are available for exploring 3D capacity. One of the easiest is 3DTin, which is most accessible because it runs within a browser without any downloads and installations.

In addition to the previously discussed ReplicatorG software, AutoDesk is one of the leading companies producing software for computer-assisted design and manufacture (CAD/CAM). Since 2011, they have introduced free software designed for adult home users and beginners in 3D design work, and the pictures on their Web pages provide further example of possibilities. Their set of software includes 123D for easy modeling on a desktop computer; 123D Catch which takes photographs from almost any camera and can produce a 3D model; 123D Sculpt which allows users to shape, sculpt and paint on an iPad and other devices; and 123D Design and 123D Make which creates/prints do-it-yourself designs.

Children and adults might be introduced to 3D computer modeling using a growing number of applications. Spex introduces modeling and also adds spreadsheet modeling as a way to think about costs associated with moving beyond models to real world creation. Cosmic Blobs enables children to shape models as if they were shaping clay. Cosmic Blob models can also be animated and included with background scenes, music and sound effects. Others have discovered that many autistic children can have a special ability to think visually and spatially and have made progress with a free 3D design program from Google called SketchUp (see Project Spectrum). 123D Creature enables the design and printing of a wide range of animals. The Pottery Game creates actual pots with a wide variety of surface patterns. The ShapeMe app creates a plastic miniature of yourself working from two photographs and allows refinements for clothing and color before sending online to Shapeways who mails back the printed object. Just as 3D printers are in their infancy, exploring 3D software for a wider range of users is in its infancy as well.




Larger objects made from real size parts can be assembled into working prototypes using larger 3D printers, saving millions of dollars from traditional machining technologies. In the example videoclip below a prototype of an actual size turbo prop airplane engine was printed, assembled and tested.

3D Printing children's prosthetic devices

It easier to see the manufacturing potential, but somewhat harder to see the personal implications and the potential for rapid production of customized designs that can be continually modified to fit a changing situation. Children's prosthetic devices are one example (Yuan, 2012^), as in the videoclip below of a child wearing what scientists would call an exoskeleton.

Assessment is a rather simple affair with 3D printing. Can the creation do what the designer intended?

3D printing implications

engineers with 3D printing prototype of actual size assembled engineThough 3D printing is a long way from science fiction's "make anything" concept, there is much that it can make. Further, everyone understands the reality of what has happened to American and European factory jobs as manufacturing plants left their countries for cheaper labor in low wage emerging economies. child with 3D printed prosthetic deviceWhat if 3D printing could turn this around? Most of us don't need a 3D printed airplane engine (left image) or a prosthetic device (right image). The wide range of what is possible is significant. Do you need a new extension cord that is shorter or longer than the ones available in the store? Go to your 3D printer and make one, changing the length parameter in the software, watching it change shape on a computer screen and then appear for your use. Electronic components including wires are now being sprayed into place ("Print Me", 2012^). Did your flippy sandals wear out? Invent your own entirely unique design and print a new pair. Taking the results from a 3D printer and making it useable can still involves some clean up and assembly, some additional labor; however, if you can use 3D software to design your own unique sandals, and if the design is creative enough, then you could put your desigin online at and charge others each time they download and print the design in their home. Designs that require more clean-up and assembly may simply require going downtown to a 3D printer store at the mall to pick up an order that was manufactured and post-processed at the store itself.

This exploration of 3D printers is moving very quickly. In April of 2013, I wrote this sentence. "UPS and FedEx might even evolve from shipping companies to post-production and assembly store chains." By August of 2013, UPS was beginning to put 3D printers into its UPS storefronts, and having a long waiting list of those sending files to be printed, then driving to pick them up (Sharma & Diakov, 2013^).

What about using a 3D printer to make a new 3D printer or ever larger 3D printers? What about 3D printing a new bike, chair, boat, new engine for your car, house of office building that includes wires, sensors and other electronics? In principle, yes; some items just require room sized and building sized 3D printers, which are already being used. In fact, the technology is not that far advanced, yet it is advancing rapidly (Cole, 2012^). In 5-10 years will it advance enough that shipping products made in Chinese factories overseas on giant ships will no longer be cost effective? Many think that a significant turn-around is possible. Serious business and economic publications such as the Economist see 3D printing as the beginning of a new third age of manufacturing ("A Third", 2012^).

In the pre-industrial society of the 1800's and earlier, there was a time and culture in which a growing group of skilled craftsman produced all the durable goods that their largely agricultural community needed for an entire nation. Large scale manufacturing in factory assembly lines had not yet been invented. As the 1800's advanced, the steam engines of the industrial revolution led dramatic cultural transformations including mass movement of population from rural areas to cities and the origins of public schools. Because of the technology of industrial automation, in two hundred years the world population increased sixfold while the per capita income increased over ten times previous levels (Maddison, 2003^), an unprecedented surge of development in human history. By the end of the 1900's, e.g., the late 20th century, employee intensive factory-based industrial companies generally left the United States and many other advanced counties in pursuit of cheaper labor elsewhere (though the United States still remained and remains first in the world in manufacturing production).

Signs of new cultural transformation are at hand. Because urban areas have in part been built up because of the concentration of product availability in major cities, a third industrial revolution based on digital manufacturing could have an enormous impact on the relationship between rural and high density urban areas. Will it lead to a long reverse exodus from major cities in the same way the industrial revolution led an exodus from the farm to the city? Why drive to "the big city" to get greater selection and cost competition when the product can be reviewed online then then edited on a home computer if the fit or color was not just right to be later printed at home or somewhere locally? Such a future holds the potential for new transformations, just as significant as those which occurred in the switch from the agricultural age to the industrial age. There is a opportunity here for social studies and history programs to begin to include this turning point in teaching.

What thinking and composition skills should our curriculum be teaching primary grade children now so that after 15 years of the advancement of such technologies they are prepared to work and invent new culture, new ways to work, and new businesses?

Perhaps digital fabrication devices will stand Karl Marx's analysis of capital and labor on its head and democratize production itself, putting labor in control of design and production. In the videoclip below, Alastair Parvin makes a strong case for the possibility. His Web site is WikiHouse.

We may in some way be returning to aspects of the skilled designer age of the 1700's but with a whole new set of high technology resources. If today's schools and educational systems are a product of following the industrial age and assembly-line factory model thinking, what will schools, education, teaching and learning need to look like when a "personal factory" future that is wired to the global Internet and uses the full range of the digital palette to communicate and create? For the first time in almost two hundred years of industrial age thinking, the physical production of goods now puts the accent on person-centered design. This is a form of understanding and composition which is merely reinforcing where design for the Web systems such as blog sites and Facebook have been for years, just some of the many outposts for personal application of the digital palette.

There was a time in our nation's history in which our educational system had an alternative strong person-centered, e.g., student-centered influence, a mind set known as the progressive education movement. The progressive education movement was largely dismantled following World War II. Today our state curriculum guidelines drive a state and teacher directed classroom. Observing a student interest focused classroom is a rare phenomena. In our educational history of the last century, a number of educators established effective educational systems, from which they pioneered notable educational philosophies and practices. Each concluded that it was critical to put the accent on student centered methodology. These internationally famous educators would include: Dewey (1913, 1938), Piaget (Von Glasersfeld, 1996), Kohl (1994), Malaguzzi (1998), Montessori (1949/1995), Vygotsky (1978), Friere (1968/2000) and Papert (1980, 1988) among others. What is new in the 21st century are the numerous reports from neuroscience and the study of the brain that student interest centered classrooms are key to more effective learning and motivation. The world must certainly be waiting for a new set of educators to create a new student centered educational movement with digital age technologies. Is there sufficient creativity and productivity in being proficient with the new digital tools that such knowledge could repeat the tenfold increase in global per capita income in a new and post-industrial revolution? The first step is developing learner-interest centered classrooms and that begins with the WonderBoards introduced in the first chapter. What are your students questions and interests? What have you learned?


At whatever pace digital fabrication develops, the end result will become one more technology that transforms our cultural lives and the nature of employment. Given the level of interest at the Federal level with the specific mention of 3D printing in the President's 2013 State of the Union address and of a plan being implemented to invest in American-made technologies through a network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, this process appears to be happening sooner instead of later. Cheap labor is being replaced by smart labor. This should be having a direct impact on our classroom curriculum practices today. Today's kindergarten child will be graduating from high school when these 3D printing technologies are significantly advanced from today's 3D printing capacity, when the need for someone skilled in using software to think in 3D will be much greater. Once again the digital age has raised the need for stronger skills with creativity, style and inventiveness.


3D on a screen

Working and thinking in 3D does not require 3D printing and assembly. Long before most were aware of 3D printers, 3D designs were being produced as still images for art and appearing on magazine covers, and then as animated sequences in movies. Many compositions were also created for a type of computer simulation called virtual reality. "Readers" or users of such scenes can move animated versions of themselves called avatars. The Internet design and site called Second Life is one of thousands of such online examples. Such compositions can be fictional or highly realistic and every level in between. One of your mobile devices may have a 3D racing game which encompasses some or all of these elements. 3D also intersects with the real world through a somewhat different media form called augmented reality, which is when a computer generated image is superimposed over the top of a real image. Software can look at a sign in Japanese and superimpose correctly translated English text on top of it.

3D Still Images

wireframe 3D showing multiple perspectivesComposers using still image 3D often begin with wireframe outlines of 3D shapes which the computer can process more quickly than in final full color. Wireframe models are then covered or "skinned" with texture and color to give them a real life look. The image on the left (Kashak, 2006^) shows 3 different views: top down, side view with wireframe lines in red and blue that are pulled to change the shape and greyscale with shadows that cover the wireframe. These images can also be placed into more comprehensive 3D virtual reality and augmented reality scenes.

sketch_up 3D models in downtown Asheville, NCExemplary 3D software applications include Bryce ($28) and Vue (free elementary school Pioneer version and higher cost versions). Google Earth has long used a kind of augmented reality to put 3D copies of buildings (created with the free 3D modeling software called SketchUp) on top of satellite photographs to create the 3D look of entire cities. Some of the downtown scene in Asheville, NC is modeled in 3D on the right. (Start up Google Earth and turn the 3D checkmark on and off over a close view of the downtown of a nearby major city to see the 3D skyscrapers and buildings). Computer generated 3D provides another perspective in seeing the world.

There are many examples of 3D software applications. One offers a fine free downloadable version for beginners, Vue's Pioneer 10, and then more powerful versions of the software for a fee. The software can be used to create still images as well as animation. The 10 second clip below hints at the animation capacity but does not begin to show the range of what is possible.

These 3D software applications have been designed so far to accept control from a compuser using a mouse and keyboard. However, it may be more natural to use finger gestures and other body motions to interact with such applications. That is, 3D input maybe better for controlling 3D output. The problem has been the incredible accuracy and width of vision that would be needed from a motion sensor. However, designers are beginning to solve that problem. In the minute long clip below the demonstration shows the very accurate LEAP software and hardware that interacts with the computer through waves of the fingers, hands and objects.

The LEAP interface provide accurate and fluid motion for controlling the actions of Macintosh or Windows computers.


Augmented Reality - Blended Contextualized Learning Community (BCLC)

Augmented reality is showing a computer generated image overlaid on top of a real world 3D image, generally a live 3D view of the world. Dr. Chris Dede at Harvard University and number of his colleagues are engaged in taking current technologies and blending them with a local context (setting) in order to build a learning community, a design they've titled Blended Contextualized Learning Community (BCLC). A place in a community has or can have a history, a literature (including any media compositions of the digital palette), scientific data and mathematical analysis that reveals even more. The blending includes a virtual reality scene with rural pond and neighboring subdivision. The virtual reality scene that can also be used to collect data on how students move through and solve problems in the simulation providing a form of assessment for many measures that multiple choice questions cannot address. The larger setting of classroom computer lab with the simulation software, a local and real world pond and smartphones has provided an interesting foundation for further research in what professional development and teacher education will look like in the years ahead.

Play the YouTube video below or open it in a new window.

The EcoMUVE project was later extended to EcoMobile and the augmented reality that could be provided by smartphones. Click the picture below to open the movie related to this project.

handheld device showing augmented reality overlay


3D Animation

There are different ways that we "read" or explore 3D animation. One is by viewing a movie using 3D characters or more advanced 3D glasses or goggles. Another way is by interacting with specialized software application such as Second Life or in specialized game software or game machine. Where readers/viewers have not been able to experience this 3D is within a standard Web browser and that may soon change with ongoing advances in the HTML code that is used to display Web pages.

3D animation movie

Watch the online 3D animated movie "Warriors of the Net" either by downloading the video found at this link or clicking the YouTube video below. The Warriors movie is also an excellent example of the three-dimensional (3D) animation created by some of the applications noted elsewhere in the optional activities section. This is not just a movie to see for 3D movie examples, but also to watch carefully for course ideas and vocabulary words. The movie describes the basic mechanics of how the Internet works, an important concept among these chapters. One of those ideas is concept of information packets. Any Web page or any file (essay, photo, etc.) sent over the Internet is broken into tiny pieces called packets that are sent by a device called a router along different paths and then are reassembled when they are received. Why does the router send different packets from the same file along different paths to the same place?

The software used to create such a movie is beyond the scope of this textbook to teach for hands-on practice, but for those wanting to know more about them, see: Blender (free), Bryce ($35), Maya Real Time Animation Suite, ($3,700). There are many other courses offered by colleges and universities that provide directed hands-on instruction on more sophisticated 3D animation and related forms of composition.

3D interactive Animation

Second Life sceneFortunately, there is a form of 3D animation that provides a direct and easy hands on experience, one that you can "script and compose merely by exploring and using screen capture to record the actions of your avatar. These applications are called virtual reality sites which are a part of genre of software are called Massively Multi-Player On Line Games (MMOGs). The most well known of these is Second Life. A link in the left column leads to a more detailed tutorial about this site and concept and how to download the specialized software to take you there. The clickable screen shot on the left is an example of a scene from Second Life when my avatar (the animated character representing me) enabled me to study the map of the Second Life site of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

As interactive games such as Second Life are about on-screen experiences instead of actual file saving, capturing educational simulation activity in Second Life requires another application, a screen movie capture application. The captured screen movie files from live interactive sites, whether 2D or 3D can be combined with videoclips shot in reality to enable educators and students to have some of the benefit of 3D design without taking weeks to learn the basics of 3D animation.

Specialized game machines, sometimes called video games, almost exclusively use 3D animation, and the gaming market has grown bigger than that of the Hollywood film s. Major game machines include XBox 360 from Microsoft, PlayStation 3 from Sony and Nintendo with its Wii sensor controller. Many in our student populations have spent hundreds of hours solving game problems within this 3D media.

Animating Learners and Education

There is another way to think about animation by thinking about its similarity to the word animal. We may be a very special kind of animal, but that is our spot in the categories of life forms, a 3D life form that moves. We may learn things by sitting still and looking at things holding still, such as text, photographs and computer screens. But clearly human beings, like all animals, are fundamentally designed to learn by studying things that move and moving among those things. If our species had not excelled at it, we would no longer exist. Our vision system has this built in. Moving elements generally get first priority in our thinking. If it moves, look at it. If an image is new and especially if it appears to be food or dangerous, concentrate on it. The function of movement and the presumption of movement are required for the healthy functioning of our brain and the rest of our body. Unfortunately, our media and computer technologies have contributed to a culture that moves less and less. This has contributed to a wide variety of problems. Just one example is obesity which is at crisis levels in the United States. But the problem goes much deeper in ways that have great importance to educators; the formation of neurons used to build memory itself is stimulated by movement.

How might mobile technology allow teachers to invent a very different kind of learning environment? Could a class of students not be so tied to a classroom space? The capacity to take digital learning outdoors, and yet to have the sophisticated learning technology that once required an electrical plug and special housing, is a very new idea, and yet seemingly the completion of a circle, to where learning and the biological formation of brains themselves started, with movement. Perhaps education can do something original with new technology. We all need to keep open minds and keep inventing.

The last 20 years of neuroscience discovery about the brain have revealed some significant ideas that are not yet widely known. We've long known that exercise plays a critical role in our physical and pyschological health. What is new is our understanding of the major role that exercise plays in cognitive health (Ratey, 2008^; Ratey videoclip, 2010). Cognitive health refers to our capacity to solve problems through thinking and remembering, to use our higher order thinking skills.

Proper physical exercise contributes massively to neurogenesis around the hippcampus, an organ in the limbic area of the brain that directs memory formation. Neurogenesis the formation of new neuron cells. These new or baby neurons are not memory in and of itself; they just represent potential capacity for when there is need to remember something. These pre-neurons are pulled off their birthing shelf and moved in place to create new memory as needed. In order for memory to grow, something must make emotional connections with the limbic system, our seat of emotions and neuron formation in the brain. Motivation and engagement are needed for the brain to desire to remember something. Neuron stem cells are then directed by the hippocampus to move to the location forming memories in the brain to create or expand them, and then grow those neuron clusters as those memories are expanded with further learning. These baby neurons are either directed by the hippocampus to new locations or they die within about 28 days, requiring continual sufficient daily exercise for the birth of new ones. From the perspective of the operation of memory formations, to not move is to reduce the ability to learn.

Such advancement in knowledge about the brain and new mobile computer technology raises a number of questions for educators to ponder. If movement (animation) is intrinsically important to animal and human learning, should the degree of animation of students (students moving) be a useful criteria to consider when assessing the quality of a lesson plan, a teaching event, the design of schools, or educational strategy? Does this mean that the most important point or the key idea of a learning activity should involve the greatest degree of movement? Have we built an educational system around school structures that are designed to make human movement constrained and difficult? Does this mean that our school architecture contributes to the dumbing down of human learning and learning potential? Does making the school day longer to gain more time to sit in a seat then really help with the drop-out rate or does it accelerate it? Recognizing the problem, what are antidotes that can help address the situation? See the one minute video example below produced on the first day of Caltha Crowe's third grade classroom (Audley, 2009^):

How many of the elementary and middle grades energizers designated by the Eat Smart, Move More site of Board of Education in North Carolina have you experienced as a student or used in your own teaching? Pick one that you could teach to the class and to your students for your content areas.

Animation then has multiple meanings, something that we both compose and physically create, and both are all important to teaching and learning.



It becomes a somewhat long title to say sensors-robots-programming though that is the definition intended here. Sensors by themselves are useless until integrated into a system of elements. The term sensors here is just a shorthand label for a package or system of software and hardware technology that work together to sense data and then do something about it. Sensors integrated with robotics add an even further extension to the idea of animation, a device (composition) that is capable of autonomous (intelligent) movement and control, whether on land, in the water or in space, a digital puppet whose "string" to the puppeteer is the programming intelligence given to it by its creator. The sensor package can be simply collecting data that will be analyzed at a later time or sensor data passed to machines and robots that automatically do things or work in remote control. These roles can be simple or sublime. Researchers and educators are still at the beginning stages of understanding how such elements will transform educational practice in the future.

Sensors in Robots

Here's a simpler one minute example where children learned to use touch, ultrasonic and light sensors to make this project work reliably. Working through the math, logic and programming increases the engagement and motiviation of students with many content areas.

A more sublime example would be one of the problems that NASA solved and actually executed brilliantly in putting a one ton robot called Curiosity on the surface of Mars, a problem the engineers called their "7 Minutes of Terror". Note how effectively many elements of the digital palette are integrated with live interview video, photos and voice over are mixed with 3D software simulation in the story below about how 500,000 lines of computer code and multiple robots actually performed.

When sensors are combined with motors, computers and software, compositions can be transformed into a wide range of robot designs. Robots contain their own computers, software, sensors and motors that can operate with various degrees of independence from direct human control. A wide range of robotics kits are designed for study and use by children and adolescents including WeDo Robotics , Lego Mindstorms Robotics, IWI Robots, Robotis Robots and Vex Robotics (Fost, 2008^). In short, a robot is a sensor platfor.

In a very recent development, Lego announced that they would be using AutoCad's Inventor Publisher software to show Lego robot s how to assemble the Lego designs. This will give children real familiarity and awareness of an application that will be used widely in the adult world. A brief overview is shown below.

Sensor Data to Web Pages

Sensors provide one more way to see the world, but through the hard data of real measurement and statistics, the kind of data that our brains sort through with much more effort. When sensors are combined with memory chips and microprocessors, they create data logging systems that can be put into places from which the transmit data or kept on a memory chip and later retrieved to download their data. The world is full of sensors that are often outside of our consciousness, from the touch, proximity or motion sensors that automatically activate motors that open a door to a humidity sensor that causes a fine mist to fall on lettuce in the fresh produce area of the grocery store. The media of 3D and sensors can also interact with each other. The reality of 3D virtual settings can be further enhanced by sensors in the real world so that the time and temperature on a 3D or virtual clock in a virtual reality setting can report in real time the actual time and temperature of a particular real location. Further, sensor data might be used to create a table of the information along with an associated graph of the data that would appear on top of the view in the real world.

Just as is a web site for sharing video, a site called emerged for sharing sensor data. global map of sensor locations at Cosm web siteIndividuals, businesses and government agencies place sensors all over the world for a wide variety of reasons. Many of them choose to share that data with Cosm which receives data from tens of thousands of sensor location along withthe stream of incoming sensor data on their web site. The global map shows just the sensor locations of the last 1,000 reporting sensors. A click on the picture here goes to their web site page which at the bottom has a large global map of clickable sensors. Clicking on a sensor told you more information about the sensor as well as leading to its data. This collection of incoming real-world data was a perfect resource for science and math class activities. However, Cosm was bought out by Xively and the map has disappeared from public view. Given the interest in such information, it is necessary to continue to look for the emergence of a new crowd-sourced sensor dat sites.

NASA (National Aeronautic Space Administration) and associated contractors are working to take all these ideas a step further, and combine all of the 3D ideas that have been discussed so far. Their future plans include using augmented virtual reality software to control real robots that would carry out the manufacture and assembly of building and facilities, robots controlled by astronauts orbiting Mars using virtual reality and augmented reality software, astronauts who would not descend to the surface of Mars until the ground avatar robot work was completed (Boyles, 2012^).

Our educational challenge is to prepare students who can fill those jobs at NASA's JPL Lab and solve those problems. It is those that we teach who will compose the software, design the hardware and carry out the assembly, exploration and research as the human race continues its slow march off the blue marble of our planet and out into the solar system.

The Cultural Shift and Parent Demand

Getting access to digital fabrication equipment has been a challenge for many. These elements of 3D design, sensors, computer programming, object fabrication and hands-on skills are increasingly being recognized by parents involved or knowledgeable about these emerging fields as important to the future of their children. One can expect that specialized charter and magnet schools will emerge based on these developments. Whether and how such developments will become "mainstream" and introduced to all students is still an unaswered question. In the meantime, various institutions such as science and art museums are providing centers and workshops where such knowledge and skills can be learned. Clubs and organizations are also springing up, with many communities are pooling their money to build digital workshop spaces that go by a variety of names, FabLabs, Hackerspaces and Community Groups and and Hacker Scouting (not affiliated with Boy and Girl Scouting organizations). They act as a kind of club space for the Do It Yourself (DIY) communities. FabLab Carolinas, located in Durham, North Carolina, is just one example of hundreds of these facilities.

The video below introduces some of the technologies that are common in these workshop spaces where everyone comes to learn and build.


As shown in the next video below, the space/Hackerspace movement has also caught the attention of some in public libraries.


The interest in spaces or Hackerspaces has led to a wiki site which is currently tracking over 500 such sites around the world. Zoom in to find the closest one to where you live.

clickable map of hackerspaces


The Hacker Scouting movement is especially interesting. Listen to this NPR story about this development, which is also available elsewhere online (Kalish, 2012, December 23^).


Recursion: The Future Synthesis of 3D and Sensors

the drawing of two hands drawing each other by Escher

It is an interesting time to be an educator and think about what it means to prepare children and adolescents to use 3D fabrication and sensor technology to take charge of our world many years in the future. What we can already see of of their future is breathtaking. Increasingly, if taught the skills, they will be able to take any object and remake it to better meet their needs and tastes for a given situation. 3D printers are reaching the capacity at which a 3D printer could make another copy of itself, which could then make another copy and so on. Buy one and the rest are just the cost of materials and this will be true for any object the printer's size capacity can handle. There is a word for this, recursion; think of the infinite receding images of two facing mirrors.

Escher's drawing above (Wikipedia media collection) is also an example of recursion. See Willis's robotic variation of this famous image and return to Escher's drawing. Now add to this capacity a self-similar reproduction that is not merely a self-similar picture on paper or in a mirror but a device in the real world that has the capacity to integrate circuits (wires, chips and sensors), motors and gears into the design of other objects. This device merely awaits someone to add instructions from a programming language, a programming language which could have instructed the printer to make a better device so its programming instructions could be rewritten to be more effective, which is another example of recursion. New issues in the environment might also change the design of the 3D printer and its computer code. This is just one example of the intellectual abstractions our curriculum can teach, but what is one day an intellectual abstraction becomes an object and set of procedures in everyday life on the next.

Once again it is worth repeating that the word sensors is being used here as a short-hand for a longer and more awkward phrase that more fully expresses the embedded nature of sensor use: sensors, robotics and computer programming. A sensor is a simple kind of logic; if some condition can be sensed, then do something, otherwise do something else. The sensor reports the condition while the robot's computer handles the two choices that result from the sensor's data. This thinking can be combined into ever larger sets of choices, paths and outcomes. Repeating a path, even a path with variations, is the idea of iteration. In contrast, recursion is when something acts on itself, whether a set of computer code which modifies its own code or the human brain thinking about itself, an idea expressed in different ways by the mathematician, Gödel , the artist, Escher and the musician, Bach.

These ideas were artfully addressed in Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize winning book titled Gödel, Escher, Bach (Hofsadter, 1985^). To that text the 21st century has added the concept of a 3D printer and other digital fabrication systems, capable of creating even another functioning version of itself. Hofstadter's point was that cognition emerges naturally from self-reference and formal procedures, transforming "meaningless elements" into thought through meta-analysis. Our new composition tools can merge naturally with and give tangible shape to our initiatives with higher order thinking skills now emphasized in our national Common Core curriculum goals.

Our digital systems are now comfortably walking back and forth across the reality line, the line between the virtual world of 3D in our display technology and the actual, real 3 dimensional world in which we live. Our human tendencies to design and build are being almost magically magnified and culturally re-emphasized, a thread that can be followed back to deep roots in the inventiveness of the hands of the stone age.

This has raised an increasingly discussed issue in the field of education that Eisenberg has wisely exposed:

(T)he longstanding division between "vocational" education, with its emphasis on construction and mechanical skills, and "liberal arts" education, with its emphasis on intellectual abstraction, has been disastrously counterproductive for both camps. Arguably, this is a division with a long pedigree–one can trace the divide at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, for whom manual labor (as opposed to higher philosophy) was primarily the province of slaves. This implicit gulf between the (exalted) world of the mind and the (somewhat less-than-respectable) work of the hand has retained much of its power to this day, as in the division between engineering and liberal arts curricula on many university campuses (including my own).

Again, this dichotomy harms both educational "tribes". Construction and design, as argued earlier in this paper, can play a wonderfully creative role in the study of the natural and social sciences, in the fine arts, in history, and in literature. At the same time, the ("vocational") skills of building and working with materials are valuable in designing scientific instrumentation, recreations of historical artifacts, theatrical sets and costumes, and a myriad other essential physical components of liberal arts disciplines. Mind and hand are fundamental and complementary ingredients of human endeavor, and this should be reflected in our educational philosophy from kindergarten on up. (Eisenberg, 2011, p. 890^).



As in the NASA example above, being creative and inventive with software that provides 3D perspective, avatars, virtual reality, 3D manufacturing/printing, sensor activation and robot functioning and healthy exercising astronauts will all be a part of an interesting future, yet a future that teachers and students can bring into their classrooms today. These tools and ideas all provide new paths to greater engagement and motivation of our students. Our challenge is to continue the needed professional development to make it all possible.

It should be noted that the field of education has waxed and waned on this theme. At the beginning of my teaching career, my kindergarten classroom contained a small shop of tools with which we supervised hammering and cutting. The composition skills of vocational education were a thread of curriculum that ran through all grade levels in the state of Wisconsin in the 1970's, a goal that has faded considerably nationally and yet now being revitalized in North Carolina in the grades 8-12 vocational goals and legislation signed into law in the 2013 legislative session, Article 10, Vocational and Technical Education. Though as Eisenberg stated above, the need for physical composition skills has gone far beyond just vocational needs.

It is also dangerous to make a formal division between the mind and the hand, for much of the brain's neurons are about the functioning of the hand. It is fair to say that the hands have a mind of their own, or at least the major portion of it.We can easily forget that the iterative and recursive acts of the hand brought vocabulary and language into existence as an extension of the power of the hand in creating objects that are so intimate to our being that they become one with us and our thinking. We seem to be rediscovering what some educators such as Italian physician, educator and noted humanitarian Maria Montessori knew in beginning her Montessori schools in 1906. "The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”

Each element of the digital palette, including the virtual and tangible aspects of 3D and sensors, robotics and programming, complements and extends the others. As the full range of the digital palette becomes better known, children, adolescents and adults will find an expectation that the fluency now in place for reading and writing text on paper will extend to all of the digital palette. This will be a change that will better represent the full nature and potential of creative human beings.


What's New

For any given chapter about the digital age, concepts and details constantly advance and new levels of analysis follow. This what's new section contains important ideas which emerge on an almost daily basis from the ongoing information explosion. Any ideas and links noted here belong in this chapter but there has not been time to weave them into the narrative above.

3D Printing

As of February 22, 2014, it has come to my attention that 3D printing is about to receive significant contributions made from North Carolina. Like North Carolina's claim to being first in flight, 3D printing may also become a North Carolina story. NC researchers have discovered a method for using a natural compound to 3D print medical implants that will not be rejected by the body; the 3D printing of riboflavin means printing with vitamin B. That of course, has incredible importance for medicine, and indirect implications for educational finance off the state taxes such patents will provide (Andrei, 2013).

Of greater immediate impact to the future of classroom teaching is the work of DeSimone, a chemistry professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, whose prior worked on Teflon has to date netted the state of North Carolina over a billion dollars in licensing royalties in recent years. Professor DeSimone is now engaged with an entrepreneurial startup of a 3D printing design (Kurry, 2014) whose written statements indicate an initial speed improvement of 100 times (DeSimone, 2014). That is, if it takes 6 hours (360 minutes) to print out a teacup using ABS plastic with current 3D printers, this new design will print out the same cup in about 4 minutes. The host for the tea party could print out an extra teacup for an unexpected guest in the time it takes for them to get through the door and make acquaintances with others guests. It could include the guest's name printed on the side of the teacup. That is, numerous complex 3D objects could be printed in the time duration of a typical school lesson plan from just one 3D printer. As this is the first iteration of DeSimone's technology, it is reasonable to expect a ten-fold increase in the design in the years ahead, which would mean printing almost 8 teacups in 4 minutes.

So many demonstrations of 3D printers are from low-cost consumer models using plastic that the question often arises as to whether they make serious parts. Elon Musk's blend of hand-gesture 3D composing with metal printing of a rocket engine part in the video below handily answers any doubts.

Augmented Reality

February 19, 2014. Does this headset look like Google Glass? No? That's the point. The Google Glass product of Google is stimulating competitors to offer something better. This product by ICIS is an interesting approach.

February 19, 2014. Amazon Integrates 'Augmented Reality' for Faster Buying. Amazon's Flow app promises shoppers the ability buy while walking through the house (or a store) by using an iPhone camera to scan an item by showing it on camera (image recognition) or bar code (bar code recognition) and order in 2 seconds or less which is then later shipped to your doorstep.

Merely integrating current software and systems now available on the marketplace one can now imagine a remarkedly different shopping experience. While walking through a store with augmented reality glasses from Google or Samsung imagine using Amazon's Flow app with the camera embedded in your glasses to scan the item on the shelf instead of your cell phone and making a new kind of cost comparison. Doing an additional search with a 3D printing app one could determine where the plans were located within a 3D printing catalog and the reviews on the design. One could then determine that it would be cheaper or better to command the 3D printer in your house to print out the item and having it waiting for you when you get home instead of either purchasing it at the store or having Amazon ship it to your house. This is within reach of personal budgets within the next 2-4 years.

In the next 3-7 years, one would expect such technology to extend itself to other fields and disciplines. As automated image recognition and computerized speech continues to advance, one can surmise that children would have the option of wearing glasses which can recognize, name, pronounce and talk through almost any depth of information about all objects in the world around them, not just those in stores.


Some Implications of the First Five Chapters

The first five chapters have taken a walk through the 10 neighborhoods of digital palette literacy, providing awareness and some initial hands-on experiences. They taught some of what has been achieved by digital literacy since 2004. It represents the pool of possibilities from which the NC Department of Public Instruction must implement State Law (SL) 2013-11 which mandates Digital Teaching and Learning Standards for Teachers and Administrator. DPI must also support the Transition to Digital Learning Bill, SL 2013-12, pict of 9 media formsthat has required all digital textbooks and instructional materials in state schools by 2017.

Cyberspace and makerspace use this literacy and its composition skills to bring some order to the turbulent setting and problems in the real world. This rapidly evolving and morphing environment challenges the notion of a "script" for teachers written by some textbook company or educational authorities. It puts a major accent on the need for learners to create and invent and to have the self-regulation to act entrepreneurially. It suggests the need for teacher decision making that is highly sensitive to providing a divergent range of classroom experiences.

The digital age and its digitall palette raise new challenges for already challenged educational systems. The overall statistical evidence has strongly indicated a need to reassess and re-evaluate the fundamental principles of the educational system of public education. Just 33% of 8th graders and 24% of high school seniors earn proficient writing scores (Kent, Wanzek,Petscher, Al Otaiba, & Kim, 2013; NASP, 2008; Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008). In short, a 13 year focus on just one aspect of modern composition, writing essay style text, has yielded a 76% failure rate on an essential 21st century skill, one that needs extension to the new literacy. The broader picture is equally disturbing. Even though the national average of the number of citizens that become high school dropouts has dropped over the past decades (5% white, 9% black, 16% hispanic, Education Week data, 2013). Of those who do graduate, "Only 25 percent of U.S. public high school graduates have the skills needed to succeed academically in college, an important gateway to economic opportunity" (Gates Foundation, 2014).

That this critical aspect of literacy is so poorly achieved is a major concern. It becomes a major indictment of a system which becomes that much more significant when seeking curriculum that actually prepares students for the global digital environment that now exists on the Web. How could the current system of public education ever hope to address the rest of the digital palette and apply that knowledge to the current major content areas of schools? The need to find alternatives is significant.


There is not a clear path into the future of alternative educational systems or into transformations of current systems, yet there are interesting possibilities from which to edit, mix and give educational leadership in the years and decades ahead. A long line of seminal education thinkers have supported alternative directions: John Dewey, leader of the progressive movement, "learn by doing"; Piaget, father of constructivist philosophy, "To understand is to invent"; Papert, " the role of the teacher is to create the conditions of invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge". The largest alternative model of PreK-12 education also has the virtue of being sustained for over a century, long after the death of its seminal founder, Montessori Schools. As noted above in chapter five, the most significant movement that has begun to emerge from the digital age is the Maker Movement, the forming of community centers of software, computers as well as manufacturing tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers for the computer driven building and creating of physical things. Such operations are blending child and adult learning in one location.

A sample of what might be possible with such a merger of mind set and creative interactive technologies can be seen the work of a professor of psychology and sociology, O. K. Moore. Using principles that were based on his sociological research, he created a responsive environment that facilitated Montessori like exploration and constructivist learning. As just one example of his new technology integration "Moore brought some pre-school children to the point where they were reading and writing first-grade stories and typing on an electric typewriter with correct fingering-and all in a matter of weeks" (Anderson & Moore, 1960). By the time the children were five years old, they were serving as editors that reviewed the writing of 3 and 4 year olds to create their own newsletter. Note again the year of publication, 1960, long before personal computers. It is not about the technology as much as it is bringing a mindset and educational empowering methods to the scene.

The mindset of the Maker Movement (Dougherty, 2013^) also curiously aligns with much of Montessori thinking (Lillard, 2005^). Their overlapping principles include: multi-age teams for design and composition; a need to learn the technology of the times; learner driven choice about activities, projects and groupings; focused basic-skill mastery learning; problem based learning; an understanding that the movement of the body and the hands is closely connected to cognition; large blocks of unscheduled time; no assigned homework; free movement (no assigned seats) within the instructional space and guided assistance and lessons by observant and knowledgeable personnel. Whether these two efforts merge or morph into something larger remains to be seen.

In the following chapters, activitites will follow progressive era, Montessori-Maker Movement themes which include choice, focused in-depth digital fluency learning, real world application and team work. Be prepared to provide a prioritized list of your digital palette interests.



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Chapter - An Introduction to 3D Animation & Sensors           Houghton  Version 1.08 Updated February 25, 2014