Imagination flourishes on the second floor of Simpson Library.
Just ask University of Mary Washington senior Alice Watkins who is turning her two-sided creations into wearable art.
She joins others in the UMW community who have discovered the wonders of a new three-dimensional printer, called MakerBot. Watkins is investigating 3-D printing through art in her independent study project called “Blending into Reality.”
In a classroom at Simpson Library dubbed the Think Lab, Watkins watches the MakerBot as it whirs and hums while a spool of plastic thread slowly transforms a flat image on a computer screen into a three-dimensional object. She picks up the small, gray piece from the printer and places it with her collection.
“That’s the reason it is called the Think Lab,” she said. “If you can think it, you can make it here.”
She hopes to make a full-size tunic or vest with the pieces, called “scale mail,” by the end of the semester. Watkins, a studio art major, received an undergraduate research grant from UMW to purchase a 3D printer of her own that she keeps in her bedroom.
3D printing technology, once the stuff of science fiction, has grown in popularity in the past year and has found a welcome home at UMW. Instructional Technology Specialist Tim Owens and Professor of Education George Meadows are co-teaching a first-year seminar course in the Think Lab this semester, focused on 3D printing, electronics and robotics.
As part of the class, the 16 first-year students from across disciplines will learn the basics of circuitry and automation, while trying their hands at designing 3-D objects, like those Watkins is making.
“I have told the students ‘What makes a good grade and what makes success in this class is not perfection,’” Owens said. “’It is about working through a process.’”
Meadows also is using the Think Lab with both his undergraduate and graduate classes in the College of Education.
Seven students in the fifth year master of science in education program – those who have chosen a specialization in either science or instructional technology – are using the lab to increase their familiarity with new technology in electronics, robotics and 3-D printing. The experience will help the soon-to-be teachers meet national STEM standards.
“We like to see all our teachers become leaders in the classroom,” Meadows said, explaining that he hopes the graduate students are more confident and willing to try new things in the classroom because of their time in the Think Lab.
The technology also was new to Watkins until less than a year ago. Last January, she visited the Department of Teaching and Learning Technologies as part of Professor Carole Garmon’s sculpture class. At the time, the university’s 3-D printer, purchased by the College of Education, resided in DTLT, since the Think Lab was still in the planning stages.
“I fell in love with it,” Watkins said.
Over the next few months, she taught herself different programs through online tutorials and developed an idea for her independent study project.
For Watkins, the project is a way to marry her love of art with her curiosity about science and technology.
“It has inspired me to learn more about the nitty gritty parts of technology,” she said, explaining that she hopes to take an introductory computer science class in the spring.
Watkins, who is a student aide in the Think Lab, said she has been overwhelmed by the willingness of the art department, DTLT and people like Owens and Meadows to help make her project a reality.
“That is something that always fascinates me about this university, how open and full of creative communication it is,” she said. “I’m glad the school is supportive of my curiosity. I’m blown away.”