The Smithsonian Institution is collaborating with the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education to allow middle school students to reconstruct key inventions that shaped the world, using 3D printing and other fabrication technologies.  

Selected inventions such as the telegraph, the telephone and early electric motors are being digitized and made available on the Smithsonian X 3D website, along with patents and inventor’s journals. The Smithsonian has also invited the students to be the first-ever external group of students to demonstrate their recreations of these inventions in the Draper Spark!Lab in the National Museum of American History. Up to 2,000 members of the public, along with officials from the White House, Smithsonian, and the National Science Foundation are expected to view the exhibit on Thursday.

The students’ work is being featured this week as a part of the White House’s National Week of Making, a celebration of the revival of the inventive and entrepreneurial spirit that has long characterized America. In recent years, students and adults have begun a new wave of tinkering, building and inventing with increasing access to technologies such as 3D printers and laser cutters, as well as design software.

The project is part of the Lab School for Advanced Manufacturing’s summer engineering academy, a partnership between the Curry School and the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions. The goal for the students is not to create an exact physical replica, but to reinterpret and reinvent the device using modern manufacturing technology.

“Students in the summer engineering academy have years of experience, now, in designing and fabricating using a variety of technologies,” said Glen Bull, professor at the Curry School and faculty advisor for the Lab School. “Our local schools are equipped with Maker Spaces, where students are invited to design and tinker with ideas.”

The 12 students, who hail from Buford Middle School and Sutherland Middle School, use Invention Kits developed in collaboration with the Smithsonian to reconstruct the inventions. During the academy, which began June 13, the students developed exhibits that will be used to demonstrate the reconstructed inventions.

According to Bull, retracing the steps of early American inventors illustrates ways in which a project or lesson can incorporate a wide variety of subject matter.

“When students analyze and then re-create these inventions, they are learning elements of mathematics, science, engineering and history,” Bull said.

For example, while working with electromagnets, students successfully developed a formula to predict the strength of magnetic fields generated. One student told Kimberly Corum, a Curry doctoral student, and Joe Garofalo, the other Curry faculty advisor for the Lab School, “We figured out an equation without really any help. We went through the same process that [physicist Andre-Marie Ampere] went through. We figured it out and we’re seventh-graders. That’s pretty cool.”

The students’ inventions are not the only thing being created this summer under the auspices of the Lab School for Advanced Manufacturing. Buford and Sutherland Lab School teachers are collaborating with Curry faculty to develop lesson plans that will accompany the Smithsonian Invention Kits. The Invention Kits also include 3D scans of original artifacts in the Smithsonian collections and 3D-printer files that permit students to download and print key components. Animations depict operation of the invention and its moving parts. The Invention Kits also provide primary source documents such as patent descriptions, associated pedagogical materials and teacher guides.

The Smithsonian is publishing the Invention Kits on its X 3D website. The Smithsonian plans to make the first three Invention Kits available to schools nationally at the beginning of the school year. These are first in a series of 12 Invention Kits.

A team of local teachers and Curry School faculty members have been developing these engineering kits for a number of years. The team plans to publish the first three kits by summer’s end and ultimately publish a kit for all 12 inventions selected for re-creation by the engineering academy students.

The team has incorporated formative assessments to test the impact of Invention Kits on learning outcomes.

“These kits are intended to increase learning through engineering design,” said Garofalo. “We want to be sure they are fulfilling this goal before we publish them for wide-spread use.”

A critical learning element of the kits, and one the summer academy students are engaging in, is what comes after the re-creation of an historical American invention.

“In each of these experiences, the students are asked to then create their own invention based on the principles of operation discovered in the original invention,” Bull said. “This is where the spirit of the Maker Movement can be seen in these young students.”

According to Bull, some of the students experience a very similar discovery path the original inventors did.

“Students often experience the same challenges as the original inventors as they reconstruct the inventions. After reading inventors’ notes and journals related to invention of the telegraph, students have commented that they feel like a modern-day Morse,” Bull said. “It can be an empowering experience for these students.”

Another student commented to Corum and Garofalo, “Usually in class, we do worksheets on stuff that the teacher’s been talking about on the board. When you gave us this, it was something different. We had to think using our own brain to try to figure out what to do.”

These learning experiences are not limited to select students. While the summer academy is limited to a small cadre of students, the Lab School for Advanced Manufacturing at both Buford and Sutherland middle schools is open to all of the students in each school during the regular academic year.

According to Bull, Maker Spaces are being developed in schools all over the United States.

“A new generation of inventors is growing up in schools where they have the space to create, test and invent,” Bull said. “It is exciting to imagine what will come from these students.”

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Curry School of Education