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Academics

“Expediting Michelangelo’s 400,000 Chisels”

by Jackson Bicknell, staff writer

These objects were all made using the new 3D printer on campus. Photo by Jackson Bicknell

Things are shifting in ways the world has never had to think about before: talking across the Atlantic Ocean, commercial trips to outer space and golden iPhones. State of the art technology hits the market, creates shock value and then fades into normalcy. Technology has become a bit of a crutch, but also a mechanism for uncovering the “impossible.” The inevitable transformation of technology makes the “Impossible” more tangible each day. We cannot stop the inevitable flood of new ideas from manifesting into the latest state of the art gadgets, but what we can do is learn from these phenomenons, harness, and use them in ways to help teach and learn in innovative and efficient ways.

Warren Wilson faculty and staff are thrilled to introduce a new addition to the college’s campus, a brand new 3D printer.

“Many people have never seen one and then once you get the chance to see what is tangibly being created, then you can say this could be used in math, art, mapping, archeology and so much more,” said Brian Conlan, the Acquisitions and Emerging Technologies Librarian at the college. “The printer helps facilitate creativity and helps get you thinking about what is now possible that wasn’t before.”

3D printing takes a digital model of any sort and transforms it into a three-dimensional, solid object. Materials used for printing can consist of anything from various metals, plastics, and plasters. The college’s printer uses a biodegradable plastic called Polylactic Acid. This material is derived from renewable resources like corn. Printing in this medium makes it easy to melt down old mistakes in order to reuse them in the future.

Geography and social science professor David Abernathy has a project in the works to create a topographic map of the college using the new 3D printer. This three-dimensional topographic map will provide a visual layout of the entire campus.

“This technology would allow us to print and replicate data including buildings, flora and terrain without having to walk the 50,000 foot perimeter,” said Abernathy. “Once we have it, people can come up with other uses of the map.”

The topographic map is not the only thing the college has in mind for the new printer—it will be utilized in the classroom as much as possible across various disciplines including the art department.

The 3D printer in action. Photo by Jackson Bicknell

“If someone has an idea for a model they want to cast, one could be created in the printer, rendering the student with an infinitely reusable mold, thus making it easier to fail, tweak and start over,” said Conlan.

“It will extend on a philosophy that I think is already present at Wilson, which is this idea of a maker,” said Abernathy. “We have makers in fine woodworking, fiber arts, blacksmithing, creative writing, we have all sorts of making, and I think our students really gravitate towards that and want to do more of it.”

The math department at the college hopes to use the printer to express mathematical theories in a three-dimensional form.

“Often, when three dimensional mathematical shapes are drawn on the board, it’s difficult to envision the diagram in real life,” said Abernathy.

One goal of the math department is to use this machine to create a real-life, three-dimensional element to conceptual ideas within the field of mathematics. The machine will add a heightened element of visual learning to the department, potentially making math more fun and comprehensible for students.

Anthropology and archeology professor David Moore will use the printer with students to help them recreate artifacts discovered from archeological digs.

“If students find a piece from an archeological dig, and they want to visualize what that whole entire artifact looked like, we could model it in 3D and then print the missing pieces to manifest the object to a lifesize portrayal of what it may have looked like down to the texture,” said Conlan.

Technology is beneficial when we can use it in ways to further activate and develop the mind. Warren Wilson’s 3D printer has already begun to fill niche purposes in the classroom, helping students learn in ways previously unimaginable. Learning is becoming more accessible to the student inside and outside of the classroom whether it’s via moodle, a 3D printer or a golden iPhone. We can use these technologies to expand our minds and learn in ways previously thought to be impossible.

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