Q&A with Erin Barr, Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind

Tell us about the school, its history, students and staff?

The Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind (MSDB) opened in 1893 in Boulder to meet the needs of students that are: hearing impaired, deaf, deafblind, visually impaired, or blind.  Today, we are in Great Falls and offer a variety of placement options for qualifying students. 

Our student population is almost 50. Some students attend the MSDB, although several others also take classes at local public schools. 

Almost half of our students are residential and live on campus during the school year.  Other students live in or near Great Falls with their families or across the state and stay with us for a week, month and sometimes longer. 

We have an incredible team staff who come from across the country with diverse backgrounds and experiences. This includes a team of Outreach Coordinators who travel the state assisting students who are not on campus.

The school day actually looks very similar to any public school program, with the addition of individual instruction as needed in braille, Nemeth (like a braille for math) and an Expanded Core Curriculum – a set of nine learning categories for visually impaired students that helps them to learn skills they miss that sighted children pick up through incidental learning), as well as sign language.


Could you tell us about “Shep” the dog?

MSDB receives supplemental financial support from the MSDB Foundation that is managed by a group of local business people and community members.  The original funds and subsequent creation of the MSDB Foundation is because of a dog. 

In the 1930s, a dog followed his owner’s casket to the train in Fort Benton, Montana.  The loyal dog waited at the train station for his owner’s return for the next five years and was given the name “Shep.” 

Trains began selling pamphlets about the dog and eventually, it was determined that the funds from the pamphlet would go to MSDB.  Over time a foundation was established to manage this money.  Today, visitors to Fort Benton can visit Shep’s grave and a larger-than-life statue that bears his likeness.


What have been some of the highlights of being part of the GE Additive Education program

I love how well the Polar Cloud works with the 3D printer and how well both work with different CAD programs.  This has made the creation of different projects easier for me as a teacher and for my students.

My favorite project required biology students to create an animal or plant cell and then 3D print it.  We had studied the different organelles in cells and created tactile examples of each.  The 3D printing project allowed me to see what my students did or did not understand about the structure of cells. 

Since all my students have visual impairments, it gave me a glimpse into how they saw each of the structures within the cell. 

Our ‘Cane Club’ - a student activity and charitable giving group - created and sold 3D printed Christmas ornaments and Valentine Day’s keychains that were all student designed. The Christmas ornament sale became one of our best ‘Cane Club’ fundraisers.  At Cane Club’s end of year party, members were each presented with an award created by the teachers. 

As a final project, science students studied plate tectonics, earthquakes and earthquake-safe buildings. Teams worked together to design an earthquake-safe building, 3D print the model, and then test it on a shake table.


Could you explain how you’ve integrated additive and 3D printing into your lesson plans and wider STEM teaching at the school?

One thing that I started this year was a STEM/STEAM Thursday in science classes.  During these classes, we were able to discuss the design engineering process, dedicate time to STEM lessons and learn in more detail about 3D printing. 

This time helped students see how STEM impacts all areas of learning and it helped students brainstorm ideas for using additive printing in art, ELA and math. 

One student is planning to create a 3D map of our book selection next year, while other students have been thinking about real-life applications for the visually impaired and exploring how to design and make an improved tip for their canes. 

I have other students who are thinking about even bigger projects, including 3D printed bridges and geodesic domes.  I cannot wait to see where this takes them individually and as a group.


How have you tapped into the GE Additive Education community? What can new schools expect, how should they engage?

New schools and new teachers should expect an easy system to use and they should not fear the process.  I know it can be something you feel you want to put off until there is more time. 

As a teacher, there is never going to be a perfect moment - dive in and get started.  I recommend making friends with your school IT person.  For me, Josh Rutledge our IT leader and his wife Denise Rutledge who focuses on Assistive Technology are great assets to our school and helped to get our additive program up and running.


How have you grown as an educator?

I was really worried that “this” learning curve was going to be too great.  However, each step was easy and helped me feel more knowledgeable about today’s technology. 

As a teacher of students with visual impairments, I always wonder how I can make something more tactile. And now, on top of that, I wonder how I can make it tactile and still usable with the 3D printer. 

For instance, our students struggle with the idea of measuring using the metric system.  I really feel that our students need to use customary measurement and the metric system.  So, to help students with this, I have 3D printed a tool that shows the measurements of millimeters, centimeters, and decimeters (mm, mm2, mm3; cm, cm2, cm3; dm).


What’s next for the Montana School for the Deaf and the Blind?

If all goes well with funding, we will be purchasing two new 3D printers making use of special pricing from Polar Cloud.