American maths and science guru Dr Laura Taalman was in Cape Town last week wowing school kids, teachers and entrepreneurs with workshops on 3D printing.
Dr Taalman’s lifelong fascination for design and 3D printing shone as she spoke to a group of teachers in the library at Wynberg Boys’ High School.
The founder of JMU 3SPACE, America’s first college-level 3D printing classroom for general education, she lives and breathes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Dr Taalman, also known as mathgrrl on Thingiverse, a website dedicated to the sharing of user-created digital design files, is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at James Madison University.
She was in the country as part of the United States Mission to South Africa’s continued support in making STEM accessible to all South Africans.
One of the workshops she held in the city was run in partnership with Woodstock-based Siyavula Education, and held at Wynberg Boys’ High School, where, with help from Grade 12 pupil Conrad Vermeulen, the school’s 3D printer ticked away creating a keyring in the shape of South Africa, complete with a hole for where Lesotho would be.
3D printing works in the same way as dot matrix but instead of individual dots it builds up material in layers to create a three-dimensional object.
Wynberg’s head of maths, Geraldine van der Westhuizen, showed a white pyramid made on the 3D printer, saying the technology made it easier to teach pupils about perpendicular height measurements.
“The school uses 3D printing for subjects such as engineering graphics design where a physical copy of an object helps pupils understand what they’re drawing. Pupils can also use the 3D printers to print their own objects. We encourage the learners to design their own objects,” she says.
Conrad says he enjoys technology and enjoyed the quirky implementation of the basic 3D printing principles Dr Taalman used, which included snowflakes, knots and a patterned cube.
“3D printing is an amazing technology which has many applications for both practical and educational purposes, as it teaches a lot about the hardware involved and the software and design process,” says Conrad.
During Dr Taalman’s talk, Wynberg’s math teacher, Neil Eddy, downloaded the software and began designing the school’s emblem.
Conrad is already designing and working on 3D prints – objects that include electronics – which he says add an extra element of design, both mechanical and electrical.
“The 3D printing process is also fun and is interactive as you get to see what you made on the computer in physical form, which I find unbelievably cool,” says Conrad.
Bergvliet High School maths teacher Dylan Viljoen says he was impressed with Dr Taalman’s honesty about most of her time being spent trying to correct the errors she feel she is making.
“It’s something which we try to inspire in the students here at school – not to give up, to keep going,” says Mr Viljoen.
Dr Taalman says teachers should encourage pupils to hang in there as it can take years to solve a problem. “And then realise the answer was there all along.”
Maths, she stresses, is not a dead subject. “If pupils think that, get them to look up pentagonal tessellations used in India to make bracelets which fit each student exactly,” says Dr Taalman. “I would rather see them explore, try and fail than have students with no inspiration. Get them to learn rudimentary knot theory.”
Dr Taalman has published research in algebraic geometry and knot theory and has authored nine books.
Mr Viljoen praised Dr Taalman for translating experiences of 3D printing, the idea, design and testing phases in a funny, motivating way.
“To make a student realise that if they are determined enough, and excited to work through any difficulties they face on their respective paths, they too are able to reach any goal which they desire,” says Mr Viljoen.
Bergvliet High uses 3D printing to design, share, and incorporate various printed models – from a life-sized model of a human heart in the life sciences department, to a scaled-down replica of an ancient Egyptian sculpture in the visual arts department.
“Bergvliet High has been printing from mostly pre-made models and 3D scans.
“We now want to push for the students to digitally design and code the models themselves. Students have the ability to be designers of the models and any pen and paper question in a test is surely a breeze,” says Mr Viljoen.
Katharina Brock of SACS says 3D printing is a great idea for the school’s maths club, when they are not studying for maths competitions.