January 20, 2015
By Tiffany Clements
A printer that creates three-dimensional objects and new digital modeling tools are helping College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University students overcome hurdles in research, test theories in the real world test and turn creative visions into realities.
CSB/SJU Multimedia Technician Adam Konczewski said the printer, which creates a solid 3D object from the specifications of a digital file by laying down thin layers of a material until an object is created, and accompanying digital modeling tools have caught the interest of faculty and students from a broad range academic disciplines during a "testing phase" in 2014.
"We have had everyone from biology, physics, math, chemistry, art [use the tools]," he said. It seems like everyone found the way they could potentially use it or implement it in their classroom — in their curriculum."
The printer and modeling tools are broadly appealing to members of the CSB/SJU community, but it was a microscopic problem that led CSB senior Mary Catherine Decker to seek a solution in the Creative Lab at Clemens Library at CSB.
In her role as a summer research assistant in the biology department, Decker was tracking the muscle contraction patterns in fruit flies. The research required her to view fly larvae under a fluorescent microscope. However, the limits of a microscope stage meant Decker could only see one side of three-dimensional larvae under the lens.
"It allowed us to see part of what we wanted to, but we wanted to see all of the muscles," she said. "We needed a way to see the whole picture."
Decker, a biology major from Milwaukee, created her own solution she described as "kind of like a rotisserie for larvae," using two pieces of foam with metal stakes through them to hold the tube containing the larvae. This setup allowed her to rotate the specimen under the microscope and view all aspects of it.
"The problem was the foam blocks weren't very precise," she said.
Using the 3D printer, Decker was able to replicate the shape and function of the foam blocks with a more stable material and construction. The small change meant the observations and recordings of the tiny larvae would consistently be more precise and easy to measure.
What's more, Decker said, using these tools has exposed her to technologies she expects to see again in her future.
"I'm going in to dentistry and dental offices are starting to have porcelain 3D printers in the office," she said. "This is something I've put on my dental school applications, that I've been working with this 3D printer and I'm familiarizing myself with the software."
Media Services Manager Adam Bauer says he expects to see more members of the CSB/SJU community familiarize themselves with these technologies in the coming semesters. CSB/SJU's 3D printer is currently housed at CSB but available for academic use by all Bennies and Johnnies. Media Services plans to add an additional printer in 2015 to meet high demand for the tool.
"Our goal is to give every student a chance to use it, whatever discipline they're studying," Bauer said. "A lot of people think, 'It's just for art. It's just for making biology models.' There are other ways to use it."Bauer said he's confident CSB and SJU students will come up with ideas for innovative applications of the tools. "You just give students an idea, something in their heads, and they start thinking," he said. "It's our job to support their thought and make it happen."