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Creating A Generation of Inventors: Mike Hathorn
Posted by 3DP4E
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By Carmen M. | 3DP4E

Mike Hathorn is a History and Technology High School Teacher at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vermont. We met Mike at the Washington D.C Science Fair back in April, where he showcased his 3d History Project at the Sketch Up booth. In 2009, Mike began to use Sketch Up to teach his 3d modeling history class. The class has students research their town’s history and create digital 3d replicas of the town’s historical buildings. The buildings were originally added on Google Earth, however, today the class designs and models to 3d print. Now in his 17th year of teaching, we spoke to Mike about making history digital and his mission to cultivate a new generation of problem solvers.

3DP4E: How did your 3D History Project get started?

MH: In 2009, SketchUp had a contest to sketch up your college campus. Dartmouth College, which is 5 miles away from my high school, they won and that got me interested in seeing what this program was about. In the spring of 2009, I started a class about 3d modeling and learning the history about our town’s building. Each year it started to grow a little bit more, originally, we 3d modeled for Google Earth and now we are 3d modeling to print. We put I think 180 buildings in Google Earth for the town of White River Junction. Now we are doing a scale model of our town that we are going to put in our historical society and send it around to the elementary schools so kids can learn the history about their town’s buildings.

3DP4E: Sketch Up has been supporting your project for years, how did they hear about it?

MH: I started a website for the 3d History Project that we were doing and there was someone through it. I contacted Sketch Up (when SketchUp was owned by Google) saying, "Here is what I’m doing and I was just wondering if there were any tips or pointers". Google sent someone to my school. They actually have an office in White River Junction, they called the guy and said, “Do you know where Hartford, Vermont is?” and he goes, “I’m in Hartford, Vermont!” He came to my school and then hooked me up with Allyson McDuffie and SketchUp.

Since then we’ve had a great relationship; I brought five students out to Mountain View, California to present our history project. I also did a little bit of SketchUp teaching with Allyson in South Carolina and it’s just been really great for my students. Allison has come up and presented a few times. She’s talked to my kids about what it was like working for Google and SketchUp. She now works for Trimble, which bought SketchUp, so it’s been great giving a small town of Vermonters a vision of the big world.

3DP4E: What kind of support has Sketch Up given to your project?

MH: SketchUp is great about working with schools. SketchUp Pro (which is a $500 - $600 software) they gave us that for free, which is huge, since SketchUp Pro gives us more add-ins we can work with. They are also a great sounding board! I am always planning, so now that I’m moving into 3d printing using SketchUp; I have an open email with six or seven people who work for SketchUp that I can ask questions to and they’ll shoot me back their ideas for little things like how to get students using SketchUp for 3d printing. It’s been a great open line of communication for collaboration.

In a small town in Vermont there’s not a lot of connections. I was fortunate to get hooked up with SketchUp very early on and they really helped me meet some nice people. They got me in contact with MakerBot and got my first 3d printer in the classroom, which was really great.

3DP4E: That’s really awesome! Do you use any other programs?

MH: I do. I use MakerWare for when you print on the MakerBot and I use Afinia3d software for when we print on the Afinia 3d printer. An Afinia 3d printer was also donated.

3DP4E: I’ve met the folks at Afinia they’re great! What have they done for you?

MH: They sent us a printer. So both MakerBot and Afinia sent us a printer and gave us a couple of spools of filament. When you first start 3d printing [laughs]… I bet we wasted a couple of rolls on failed prints, but now we’re starting to become more successful with our prints. We’ve done about 60 of our buildings successfully so far. We’ve got some other unique prints that the kids come up with and its always nice to have some extra filament. My school bought a couple extra spools, they’ve given out some good prices on the filament that we need.

3DP4E: So how did your first 3d printing experience go?

MH: It was pretty funny when I first got it I didn’t have the students that were going to be using it immediately in my room. I had like two weeks, so I created a building, printed it and it came out perfectly. I’m like, “Oh, this is the easiest thing ever!” Then the students came in and it probably took 20 failed prints before we got building #2 printed properly, but now they’ve gotten really good at it.

There are a few things that you have to do when using SketchUp to make sure the buildings are solid so that they can print. SketchUp is trying to make a model’s data light, so it’s not really a solid model. You have to use some other tools to make sure it will print solidly. We had to change some of our designs because they were so detailed for Google Earth, but when you print in a 1:400 scale you have to take some of the details out because there too small to print.

3DP4E: What kind of details would have to be removed?

MH: Let’s say we had columns on certain buildings. If there were seven columns we might have to take three of them out and make the others bigger. They can still see the columns and the effect is there, but they would print properly.

3DP4E: When did you start adding the 3D printing element to the project?

MH: Actually without necessarily meaning to, I was teaching 3d History from SketchUp to Google Earth and my whole curriculum was geared around (Google Earth) doing that. When Google sold SketchUp to Trimble shortly after, they stop allowing user created buildings onto Google Earth. So my entire curriculum of having students create buildings and putting 3d History on Google Earth wasn’t able to happen anymore. Well, I panicked a little bit and through some brainstorming I realized, well, the next natural step is to take the 3d models we’ve created and 3d print it as a 1:400 scale model of our town so it could be used as a teaching tool for the elementary students and can be on display at our historical society.

It was really an evolution of necessity that what I was teaching couldn’t be done anymore, so I had to make changes on the fly. Students really get into the history through the 3d modeling process so I wanted to keep the 3d modeling in there, but without the ability to put it on Google Earth the reason for doing it wasn’t strong enough to keep it going. By doing it now for 3d printing, it got their attention again and the idea of a 3d printer is still new enough that all the students get excited when they get a chance to use it.

3DP4E: You are in the middle of creating a Maker Space at the school, how is that going?

MH: Yeah, its been going really well! I’ve gotten a lot of support from my school. They are giving me 16 computers for the classroom and letting me design the space. I want it so that the kids standing up are able to move around, so I am going to put high benches for all the computers to be on, have big workspaces and we are also looking to get some more 3d printers for the classroom. I’ve got some kids that are working on some programming and one of them is working on making a quadcopter right now. We’re going to try and have some different things so the kids can play around and learn some cool stuff at the same time.

3DP4E: Why is creating a Makerspace important?

MH: As a history teacher and then becoming a technology teacher in the process I’ve noticed that we’re creating a great generation of consumers. I want to start transitioning into this generation being the inventors and creators rather than just the consumers of it.

I’ve gone through a little stretch where I’ve gotten students that were tremendous users of computers and cellphones and now I feel like many of the students that are coming through they know how to use their phones and they know how to do certain things, but they don’t know how to problem solve, they don’t know how to do things that should come natural to this generation because everything has become so automated.

I’m trying to change that. I want them to come up with a problem that they want to fix and create a solution to fix the problem. One of the first things they will be doing is we have a really outdated library, so I’m going to have the class design a new library. What they feel a library should be, including, we think a library should have a Makerspace that allows students to go in and play around during the day and create stuff that they can’t in their classes.

Our library is just books, so we are in desperate need of an overhaul [laughs]. We’re going to start with the Makerspace classroom and hopefully through that … you know, these kids have great ideas and we have not necessarily been utilizing the resources of the students, so having them create stuff I think will be a huge benefit to our school.

3DP4E: You have been teaching this course since 2009, what kind of impact has the class had on your former students?

MH: My first class that I started teaching this to, that core group, just graduated from college. Its been great seeing the avenues that some of them have taken. A few of them were able to SketchUp their campuses and continue it. Over the years, I’ve received many e-mails and phone calls just saying how valuable the problem solving aspect of my course was. Unlike many history courses there’s no one answer oftentimes there’s a 100 answers, but equally a number of places that can cause problems, so it something that’s not just okay read this and then answer this. Its okay, we have to put a dormer on this roofline, how are we going to make it work. Three kids will come with three different ways to do it and all of them work.

I think its something they really appreciated, the idea that they can figure out their own way through the problem that works for them and all of them became way more adept with utilizing the technology that they had, even though none of them [from that group] went on to engineering they all had a better understanding of how to use the computer software. Where I actually have a group this year, I have a kid going to MIT and three going to Virginia Tech’s Engineering School. I feel like even though we aren’t using the tools that they will be using when they’re in engineering school, when they do start using the software like SolidWorks and other higher end engineering tools, which are very similar to SketchUp, they will be able to make the transition very easily.

3DP4E: How did this one class evolve into more than one?

MH: We started as one and then the first group wanted to keep it going when they were seniors so I did it a year long for them as I was teaching a 9th grade social studies/geography course. Then more kids wanted to take it, so I ended up with two blocks of it for the next couple of years. This year I noticed that there was a huge need for technology based classes, so I created three distinct classes and I will be teaching 6 different sections next year, all technology based, which is why the school is helping me put together a Makerspace. The school’s giving me the computers and I get it to fill it with the cool stuff.

3DP4E: What will the sections you are teaching be like next year?

MH: Two of the sections are 3d Modeling to Print. They’ll learn SketchUp and maybe a little TinkerCad, Blender using those to 3d print. Then there are two sections called Digital Research and Design, where they will pick any topic they want to research and then put together a website about the research. They’ll basically learn how to research, how to display that research digitally and have an online portfolio of all their research materials. Then I have two sections I am calling Technology Design and Innovations, which is completely up in the air. I mean, I come in day one and say we are going to figure out some problems that we have and then we’re going to come up with some solutions. So if they decide that Hartford High School is spending too much money on electricity then we need to figure out, do we need solar panels? Do we need something that can decrease how we expend our electricity? There’s going to be no pre-designed curriculum before the class starts because I want the students to come up with all the problems that we are going to be figuring out.

3DP4E: Your curriculum is available on your site, sketch2print. Are you aware if any other teachers/schools using it?

Yeah and I am creating a new website in which I want to put more lessons on there. There haven’t been a lot. I know that in the state of Vermont (I’ve gone to a bunch of conferences), I’ve seen more 3d modeling in the classroom and when SketchUp was working with Google Earth that was spreading really fast. I actually went down and taught a class at Strattford High School near Charleston, South Carolina. They were doing a project, needed to learn how to do Sketch Up and were able to do their town history through that, so I know that was spreading fast.

Now that that’s done I think the new thing is 3d modeling for practical purposes, but I don’t know because 3d printers are expensive and having time in the day to actually set it up. I don’t see a lot of it in traditional high schools I see more of it in vocational schools. One of my goals was kind of having college prep students have vocational skills, so they can actually apply their knowledge during high school because I think their very good at doing the reading, the research and the work, but their not necessarily doing the creating and the vocational application.

Hartford High School is primarily college prep high school and we have a vocational school attached to it. Some kids go to both high schools. The vocational school has a ton of high tech courses but it’s not acceptable here [for students to go to both schools] especially for the kids that are going to college because their schedule is so full. We have 550 students and I would say 90% or so go on to college.

At our peak we had about 880 kids. Our whole state has declining enrollment. The reason I presented these classes is here’s a way we can set ourselves apart from other high schools because I think when kids can pick there high schools their going to pick ones that are doing more innovative things to get them ready for their future.

3DP4E: Do you use any resources to create your curriculum?

MH: No, I don’t. I’ve been so busy with it that I haven’t done any research to see what’s out there because it seems every time my classes get rolling with something it evolves on its own. The 3d printing, when I found out that Google wasn’t allowing the submission from SketchUp anymore, I emailed one of my former students, who was at a nice tech school in Canada and said, “Hey, What are some ideas? I still want to use Sketch Up”. He emailed be back and said, “Well, I’ve never tried it, but I hear 3d printing is kind of becoming a big deal”.

I tend to network more than research. I feel like I get bogged down when I do Internet searches. I’ll find something that I’ll spend 3 hours on and when I get down to it I find out that I need to pay $500 to be able to use any of it. I tend to think lets see what we can do with our own resources and I use people a lot. I have a fairly large email chain and I’ve started to use twitter. I’m getting people that are giving me ideas through twitter so I think human networking has been the most important part for me in developing my projects.

3DP4E: I know that you are hosting a 3D competition with Google; can you tell us more about it?

MH: Yeah and Google has been great with me even when they split with SketchUp. They’ve still kept in contact with me and plan on taking another group of students down to tour Google. They like to do things for schools that get the kids interested and involved and even though SketchUp isn’t a part of Google anymore, we set up a state-wide competition where each school will make a 3d model of a historic part of their town. Then we’ll have a contest where we bring all the 3d printed buildings together and see what they look like when they are all on one stage.

It’s very much in its infancy. We are hoping to start it early in the fall and give them a school year to complete. The judging will be in the spring and my students because they’ve been working with it, I offered them as judges, which will be great! My kids work on making models all year and then they get to do the judging at the end of the year. It will be a lot of fun!

Learn more about the competition

Learn more about the 3D History Project

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1 Comments
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Allyson McDuffie
about 3 years

Mike Hathorn is one of those rare individuals whose ability to innovate and inspire kids is something we all should aspire to. He's my very favorite educator! Great work, Mike!

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