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Baraboo student prints 3D blocks to help children with disabilities communicate

December 8, 2018 GMT

When an opportunity arose that combined helping children with disabilities and digging into 3D printing, Baraboo High School student Adele Griffin took it and ran.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Griffin, 16. “I took Communications I with Mr. (Aric) Hanusa my freshman year, and ever since then, this stuff just kind of fascinates me.”

Now a junior, Griffin is taking independent study with Hanusa, a technology education teacher at the school. He said he suggested it so she could help him get the new technology lab and equipment set up because she excelled in his class.

“And, frankly, it’s a lot of work to try to put together new facilities,” Hanusa said.

The new facilities, funded by a referendum and finished over the summer, included three new 3D printers, which brought Griffin an unexpected opportunity. After first contacting the Baraboo Public Library which pointed her to Baraboo High School, Jennifer Hudson-Stanek contacted Hanusa to ask if his department would help a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction program by producing 3D symbols.

Project Core

Hanusa said the project fit well with Griffin’s interests, goals and independent study. She was tasked at the beginning of this school year with figuring out how to use the printers with the provided design files and then printing objects that represent the words “go,” “like” and “not” for the Wisconsin Deafblind Technical Assistance Project.

Varying by shape, color, tactile feel and texture, the blocks also include the word in both braille and indented print. They, along with more than 30 others, were designed to be a universal method for helping deafblind children — those with both visual and hearing impairments — learn how to communicate if they aren’t yet able to speak or communicate in another way. According to the assistance group, there are about 150 children on the Wisconsin Deafblind Registry.

Hudson-Stanek, an office associate for the state deafblind project, said the three symbols Griffin is producing are a starting point for learners struggling with communication, because they convey abstract concepts common in language but difficult to teach.

“I was pretty excited about that — being able to help out students,” Hanusa said.

While the curriculum that includes the symbols, called Project Core, is relatively new, Hudson-Stanek hopes to see it become more common. She said similar systems have been used in the past, but Project Core is the first nationwide, universal system. The symbols would accompany a child from school to school, allowing him or her to communicate with an unfamiliar teacher. Hudson-Stanek said there currently are two students who went through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction program to get the symbols produced by Griffin.

Griffin noted the objects can be hard for parents or educators to find because they aren’t mass-produced. Anyone can make their own with a 3D printer, but Baraboo High School is the only place making them for the state, Hudson-Stanek said.

Since Griffin started the project, she has produced roughly 30 sets — 90 blocks total, Hudson-Stanek estimated. She noted the DPI program is just getting started, so not all have been distributed yet.

“I just really appreciate their help and their cooperation,” Hudson-Stanek said of Griffin’s and Hanusa’s knowledge of 3D printing. “(They’ve been) an excellent resource for us. It’s really nice to have that collaboration with them.”

The process

Production is made easy, Griffin said, with the design files available online. She just has to put the files into the 3D-printer software and ensure she has the right color material, called filament, that fuses together to make the object. The DPI provided the school with filament.

However, not everything has been easy. Griffin said Hudson-Stanek asked her to make smaller blocks that would be easier for toddlers to handle. It was up to Griffin to figure out how to scale down the original schematics.

“It doesn’t play out as you think it will, so then you have to mess around a lot with that,” she said.

Griffin can now make one to two batches per day, with nine blocks per batch. Each of the machines is set up to print three of the smaller blocks at a time, and they take just under six hours to produce, Griffin said.

“I think she’s been doing a fantastic job, very detail-oriented. She’s able to do the research it needs,” Hanusa said. “Here’s this awesome opportunity you have, and she’s able to research it out, find information and accomplish those goals.”

He credits the school’s “great community partnerships” with developing the opportunity. Griffin noted the knowledge she’s gained should help her in the future, as 3D printers are becoming increasingly common in various businesses and fields of work.

Future applications

Griffin previously considered pursuing engineering — partially because her father is an engineer — but working with the 3D-printing software made her realize she wanted to learn more about how it was developed. That led her to statistics and then actuarial science, which involves calculating risk for insurance companies.

“Especially with this, (I) just kind of discovered that I really like math,” she said. “Math is where my brain works.”

While being an actuary doesn’t currently involve the use of 3D printers, Griffin said her knowledge still might put her ahead of other job applicants, especially given the rate technology is advancing.

“We’re super thankful” for the referendum renovations and new equipment, Griffin said. Hanusa noted the department had older 3D printers before, but they couldn’t have made as detailed or consistent a product as the new printers. If they’d tried to make these blocks with the old ones, extra labor would have been required to make the blocks usable, such as sanding them down afterward.

“I’m just excited for the students to be able to have opportunities to grow and to learn new things and to be able to help the community,” Hanusa said. “That’s the important part.”