Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators

by Melba Kurman

Inspiring the Next Generation of InnovatorsTeens, Engineering Education and 3D Printing

A vibrant innovation-oriented economy needs technically savvy inventors and entrepreneurs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of technology-oriented jobs continues to increase. Yet the number of trained and qualified engineers continues to decline and the U.S. is not doing a great job attracting youngsters to engineering-related careers. How can universities, parents and corporate employers convince teens, particularly girls and under-represented minorities, that technology-oriented careers are creative, good for humankind, and entrepreneurial?

Teens need a reason to study engineering and technology-related subjects. If teens think that engineering is only about abstract theory and math-based problem solving, they likely will gravitate towards another career choice. What if it were possible to introduce teens to the joys of product design by enabling them to experience, first-hand, an entire product design cycle in less than a week?

Recently, I participated in a five day engineering course that used simple design software, 3D printing and an online marketplace to convince teens that engineering is the perfect career choice for creative, entrepreneurial people. Some students were already considering a career in an engineering or technology-related field; others weren’t sure. Many were under-represented minorities and about half of the class was female. None of the students had used computer-aided design (CAD) software before, nor were they familiar with 3D printing.

The course was based on the premise that a good way to interest students in engineering is to let them design a product of their own choosing that will have near-term social and commercial relevance. Traditional teaching tools such as the textbook, the powerpoint slides, the theory and the math can come later, once students are already hooked. Hod Lipson, an engineering professor and co-creator of the Fab@Home 3D printer project led and taught the course. Graduate students Cheryl Perich, Jonas Neubert and John Amend shared the teaching load and helped students master the design software in the hands-on sessions in the computer lab.

This experimental course kicked off with each student thinking up a product that they would design, brand, make, price and sell. The requirements were that each product be made of a single material, be novel, useful and commercially viable. Students spent a few hours each day mastering 123D, a design software made by AutoDesk. In the middle of the week, everyone’s working design prototypes were 3D printed to make sure the design concepts worked in reality.

At week’s end, when students completed their product designs, they selected an appropriate price for their product based on the cost of material and what they thought customers would pay. The final step was for students to upload their individual design files to be sold on Shapeways, an online marketplace for designers and buyers of custom 3D printed products. At the course closing ceremony, each student pitched his or her product idea to classmates and parents and demonstrated the 3D printed, physical product in action.

After five days of instruction, here are a few of the products designed by students. These prototypes are made of a semi-clear, commercial-grade plastic. I also included the design file. Keep in mind that these products were designed to be ultimately 3D printed in more attractive materials available on Shapeways such as titanium, shiny silver, or brightly colored plastic.

Pencil Shelf – a creative pencil holder for creative people!
Tumble Cone – a retractable ice cone holder that allows for clean eating, no more broken ice cream cones.
Nuclear Stop – a new, revolutionary way to stop your door.
A-MAZE-ING – a two-level ball maze for kids that has entrances for start and finish
The Big Squeeze – are you tired of seeing all that un-used toothpaste left in the end of your tube?

I’d be the first to agree that there products are indeed simple. And yes, if these students were to continue their engineering education, they would (and rightly so) need to dig in and master the theoretical underpinnings. To me, the value of this course was that it ignited students who might not consider themselves “technical people.” This course also served the hands-on learners, the students that if introduced to engineering via mathematical equations and abstract problem sets, may fail to recognize that engineering is at its core, just problem solving — an activity they enjoy and are good at.

True, many undergraduate engineering product design courses already teach entrepreneurship and product innovation. However, few courses teach the whole gamut: how to design a product, prototype it, price it and sell it in a real marketplace. Also, most introductory engineering courses span several months, an intellectual ice age for teens in today’s hyperspeed culture.

The course was fun for me too, and offered an exhilarating intellectual workout. I was invited to guest lecture about the disruptive effect of 3D printing on the product design and marketing process, especially the intellectual property issues. Here’s a tip: if you ever want to make sure you’ve really mastered your area of expertise, test-drive your presentation on a group of teenagers. Their relentless, rapid-fire questions make tech industry executive review sessions seem downright mellow in comparison.

Clearworks - Customers, Connections, Clarity

While waiting for class to begin, a boy demonstrated how to solve a rubix cube in under a minute, accompanied by the cheers of his classmates and shouts of “he’s an animal on that thing!” During class, I used iTunes as an example of a disruptive business model that changed how we buy and sell music, similar to the effect that 3D printing and cheap design software will someday have on mass-produced products. On this point, students were quick to clear up my ignorance, informing me that iTunes is already a clumsy, out-of-date nuisance (anyone worth their salt gets bootleg music by jailbreaking their iPhone).

A hand shot up every few minutes:

  • “When you put your product for sale online, what is the best profit margin and why?”
  • “What if somebody copies my design and then sells it as their own?”
  • “What kind of nylon was that 3D printed hand-gun made out of? Are the bullets nylon also?”
  • “What’s the financial tipping point where I make more money selling my product on the shelf at Walmart vs. online on shapeways ? How much more would I have to charge to cover Walmart’s cost of shelf space, and how do I figure out the best prices for both locations?”
  • “If somebody buys my product and gets hurt, who’s going to get sued? Me?”
  • “Is there any way to melt down the stuff in the landfill and use it as 3D print material?”
  • And the kid who was really thinking like a next-gen businessman: “What if amazon and eBay set up a Shapeways storefront so we could sell our products to all the people that shop on amazon and eBay? We would reach way more potential customers that way!”

This course convinced me that the challenge in getting kids to consider a career in working with applied technology is not that kids lack problem solving aptitude. Nor do they lack interest. The challenge lies in reaching kids before they decide that engineering has no relevance to the things they care about. By the time teens get to college, it’s already too late. According to statistics from the National Science Foundation, only 3.8% of women choose engineering as a major, compared to 19% of the men; African-Americans and Hispanics are similarly underrepresented in science and technology fields.

Clearly, there are a number of reasons why gifted young people turn away from engineering careers — reasons already detailed by a wealth of high quality research. In response, several valuable initiatives are underway to encourage young people to study science and engineering. A good example is a project called Fab@School that is introducing 3D printers and design software into classroom teaching activities to get kids as young as 8 or 9 interested in math, engineering, science and technology. This pioneering project is led by Dr. Glen Bull and his students at the University of Virginia in partnership with regional elementary school teachers.

However, large-scale improvement is slow and uncertain. In the meantime, maybe a course such as the one described above could help change a few minds. Hod Lipson and I want to offer this course again, but next time to people of all ages interested in design and 3D printing. There will be a course fee but we’re trying to keep it as low as possible. Please email me at if you’d be interested in attending as a student or being a sponsor so we can gauge interest.

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Melba KurmanMelba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.