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When This Teacher Became a Student Of 3D-Printing, She Took Girls’ STEM Education to Another Level

Amy Kover
May 21, 2019
An 11-year-old girl arrived at school one morning, her face a mix of consternation and determination. The world's coral reefs were shrinking by the day, and she wasn’t about to stand idly by. No way. She had a plan: She'd build reef replicas to send to conservation experts in Florida. And thanks to her 3D-printing club for girls, she had the skills and tools needed to get the job done.
Leading this charge is Jessica Hughes, the head of the 3D-printing club at Hyde Park School in Cincinnati, who, in just three years, has won about $25,000 in grant funding to build an extensive 3D-printing program that’s helping girls bring their biggest ideas and dreams to life.

Hughes’ journey began in 2016, when, as a STEM specialist, she started teaching a sixth-grade class on computer-aided design (CAD) — a tool that allows engineers to develop and test their ideas inside a computer — and noticed that the boys were catching on faster than the girls. “CAD requires the ability to manipulate a 3D space, and the girls took longer to master those skills,” says Hughes.

The disparity kept the 13-year teaching vet awake at night. Why weren’t her girls thriving? She knew girls and boys test the same in math and science, but fewer girls sign up for classes in engineering and computer science. Flashing back to her own tween years — when she spotted some girls feigning incompetence in math to seem cool — she worried that history was repeating itself.

 width= Jessica Hughes' STEM classes benefit from the GE Additive Education Program. Students are presented with a challenge they address by creating a 3D-printed object, such as “Tinkering With Turbines.” Here, the students built a prototype of a functional wind turbine for an African village. Working in groups, they designed with CAD software and then 3D-print a model that’s powered by a tiny DC motor. Images credit: Jessica Hughes.

But she also knew that STEM jobs offer the best employment prospects for all of her students. Acutely aware that women hold fewer than 30% of professional science and engineering jobs, Hughes decided to take action: She secured funding from a local organization and started her 3D Girls Printing Club.

For three months, 15 fifth grade girls met once a week after school to learn CAD and work on the 3D-printing projects of their choice. Hughes even coordinated with a GE program called GEMS — Girls in Engineering, Math and Science — so that a different female engineer joined the girls each week to advise on projects and share stories of their own career paths in STEM. By the time the club members hit sixth grade, they were ready to take the CAD class by storm. Explaining the finer points of 3D-printing equipment to the boys, they guided classmates through design and technical problems. “Not only had the club empowered them to help, but they were empowering other girls who were not in the club to see that girls can do this,” says Hughes.

Encouraged but not satisfied, Hughes kept building — spending hours scouring Twitter for new funding leads. “It’s like a second job,” she jokes.

And then, in 2017, during a GEMS luncheon at GE Additive to honor her girls’ club, she hit the STEM grant mother lode: The company had just launched Additive Education Program (AEP), an initiative to expose K-12 students to STEM through interactive 3D-printing projects.

Hughes applied and received the grant. Her school got access to a cloud-based portal with three years’ worth of curriculum and learning tools, 3D-printing materials and a brand-new 3D printer. “It’s taken what we were doing to the next level,” says Hughes.

Each unit of the curriculum, known as STEMTrax, presents students with a challenge they address by creating a 3D-printed object. For instance, in “Tinkering With Turbines,” the students build a prototype of a functional wind turbine for an African village. Working in groups, they design with CAD software and then 3D-print a model that’s powered by a tiny DC motor. They assess what works and what doesn’t, and then go back to the drawing board to fix any problems.

Hughes has applied the curriculum to nearly every facet of her STEM program. Her inspired students even take their skills beyond the program — building, for example, a dice game for math and an Egyptian pyramid for social studies.

But what Hughes likes best is how her girls have reacted to the program. She’s noticed AEP projects are nudging club members, already a socially conscious bunch, even further into using their ideas to engage real-world problems. While one student is repairing the world’s oceans, another is learning how to 3D-print body parts after seeing a softball teammate pitch with a prosthetic arm. “They have big hearts and they are caring,” says Hughes. “They want to use their math and science and STEM skills to have an impact on the world.”

They will find no better role model than their own teacher, who’s determined to find enough funding for Hyde Park School to offer 3D-printing curriculum as early as third grade. Considering her grant-writing acumen, Hughes’ STEM girls could run the math on that one. They’d tell you the odds are pretty good.