Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:
March 25, 2010 — Imagine a desktop printer that produces tennis shoes, chocolate Rotundas, tubing for robots and even human organs. Not pictures of them, but the real deal.
It sounds futuristic, but its time is now. The machine is called a fabricator, and the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia will be the first in the country to integrate this type of technology into its teacher preparation curriculum.
"It sounds like science fiction, but it's really, really tangible, and it's really here," said Cornell University scientist Hod Lipson, who spoke about the machine at Curry on March 4.
User-friendly software creates blueprints for the fabricator, which then pushes out layers of material until the object "prints" right before your eyes.
"You can download a rubber ducky off the Internet, hit the print button, and you will have that thing on your desktop, physically there," Lipson said.
"Instead of spitting droplets of ink, it will spit out droplets of plastic" — or even organic materials, such as edible ingredients or human cells, to create food or human tissue. (In one study performed at the Stone Clinic in San Francisco, a collagen scaffold was fabricated for use as a template for the regeneration of meniscal cartilage and was successfully tested in 10 patients in an initial, Food and Drug Administration-approved, clinical feasibility trial.)
Lipson demonstrated the machine's capabilities by producing a chocolate Rotunda for the audience at the Curry Library Innovation Commons, which included U.Va. community members and students from Crozet Elementary School.
"The implications of using the fabricators in the classroom are far-reaching," said Glen Bull, co-director of the Curry School's Center for Technology and Teacher Education.
Bull collaborated with Lipson, director of the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory, to design a $1,800 3-D fabricator specifically for Curry and K-12 classrooms.
It was Bull's vision that identified the potential for learning with the technology being developed for other uses in laboratories across the country.
"Math and science are naturally embedded in the process," he said. "It empowers children, unleashes creativity and truly engages them to learn about the tools they need to be leaders in the world."
Many of the students working with digital fabrication have expressed interest in engineering careers as a result of this experience, Bull said.
Lipson spoke at Curry in conjunction with the launch of the Children's Engineering Initiative in the school's Innovative Commons, which also debuted a prototype of the machine developed for Curry's use.
"It's the first of its kind," Bull said of the system he calls "Fab@School." "It will allow students to have the motivating and satisfying experience of taking their concepts from mind's eye to physical form."
The fabricator will join other similar machines and computers in the Children's Engineering corner of the commons, a place where student teachers will be able to learn about the cutting-edge technology.
Fifth-graders from Crozet have been using a 2-D fabricator to print on a cardboard-type material that they then fold and glue to create a range of 3-D objects, including model rockets, castles and dioramas. In conjunction with Children's Engineering efforts at the Curry School, they attended the March 4 launch.
Of the new fabricator, 10-year-old Trey Harvie said, "We mainly use it for generating 3-D objects for math, which was fun. But we could use it for other subjects like history and social studies."
Bull, who has been with Curry for 35 years, credits the school's leadership and a culture that has been cultivated over decades for his success in bringing this kind of leading technology to the community.
"The Curry School is a very unusual place," he said. "It has a commitment to a culture that supports innovation. We've built the community that would support this kind of technology."
Lipson compares the accessibility of fabricators to the personal computer revolution in 1975.
"No one knew what you could do until the first kits came out," he said. "The PC was the democratization of information and innovation." And so is digital fabrication, he said.
Asked about Lipson's presentation, which highlighted the more exotic uses for the technology – such as tissue replacement – fifth-grader Hanna Clark said, "From what we've done, I'd believe just about anything" is possible.