HCES STEM club uses 3-D printer to help student learn to communicate

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A group of Hamilton Crossing Elementary students are demonstrating altruism at its finest.

The 38 members of the school's STEM club have spent the autumn months creating tactile 3-D symbols that will help a first-grader who is vision- and hearing-impaired learn to communicate.

The third- through fifth-grade club members have met for more than an hour every Tuesday afternoon — as well as other times — to learn how to use the 3-D printer to make the 18 symbols that the young student will use to learn core communication words.

"We are very excited about this project for many reasons," said GATEWAY teacher Jennifer Colston, who sponsors the club with media specialist Leeann Denham. "Exceptional education teacher Donna Buffington and her American Sign Language interpreter originally approached us about using the school’s 3-D printers to help a student in need. This project goes right along with our Hamilton Crossing crest: H-heart, C-character, E-excellence and S-service. Any time students get an opportunity to help another student, it creates the perfect, authentic, teachable moment."

The students couldn't wait to get started on the printing, according to Colston.

"Our STEM students were enthusiastic about this project from the minute they heard about it," she said.  "Mrs. Denham is our 3-D printer expert so she took charge of putting our plan in motion."

Denham said the club members are printing 18 tactile symbols — created by an organization called Project-Core out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – that represent the following words:

Go, Do, Help, Like, Turn, Make, Open, Want, Get, Different, Same, Finished, Not, In, It, More, On and Up.

After being approached by the teachers a couple of weeks before the club's first meeting in September, the sponsors thought printing the symbols would be a great way to learn about the club topic of familiarizing members with the logistics of 3-D printing, Denham said. 

"A great way to do that is by starting with objects others have made into STL files — the file type used by most 3-D printers," she said, noting Project-Core made the symbols available on its website. "It made the introduction of 3-D printing better than we’d imagined since we now had a real-world application for the students to work with."

The students were "so excited about it, they’ve asked to come in during their recess to help print more" of them, Denham said.

"A minimum of an hour and a half is required to print one symbol," she said. "Once the printing begins, there is no more work to be done other than occasionally glancing through the cover to make sure all is well, just like baking a cake." 

The first symbols introduced to the first-grader were Go, Like and Not, Denham said.

"Whenever the student is engaged in movement from one location to another, such as from the classroom to the library, the Go symbol is placed in his hand," she said. "He can feel the word Go in letters, in Braille and in a raised symbol, along with the unique shape and texture of the Go symbol. For a young child who has significantly delayed communication skills to have tools like these to convey wants and needs is an extraordinary advancement in the child’s education."

So far, the youngster has seven of the symbols and will receive the rest of them next week, Denham said.

"He came with his ASL interpreter to collect [the first seven] and reacted with great enthusiasm," she said, noting the entire set of symbols will be printed by Friday. "His teachers will decide the order in which to actually teach the symbols." 

Club members were just as enthusiastic about making the symbols as he was about receiving them. 

"I wanted to make them because it would help him get around the school better," fifth-grader Bridget Galloway, 11, said. "It’s really fun because you get to help out with some kids that are different from you, and you get to see how their lives are. You find a way to make their day and help them."

Fifth-grader Sofia Cabanas said she wanted to make symbols for him because "he can’t see so when he touches them, he can learn the words."

"I think it is really cool to help him," the 10-year-old said. 

Principal Lynn Robertson was proud of the STEM club members for wanting to help one of their own. 

"This project is a perfect example of the altruism and kindness of our diverse student body," she said. "They’re quick to help others."

Hamilton Crossing's STEM club started in January as part of a Bartow County School System initiative called STEM Afternoons, funded by a Title IV federal grant for Student Support and Academic Enrichment, and students had to complete an application to participate, according to the sponsors.  

"We are thrilled to be able to offer this opportunity to our students," Denham said. "Learning STEM skills to help others in a service opportunity is exactly what our children need to become globally focused citizens."