MakerBot Thingiverse 3D Printed Objects

Picture of 3D carbon atom as a tactile objectMakerbot Thingiverse logoThe problem: MakerBot has an extensive library of thousands of digital files for 3D printing available on their Thingiverse website, with more being added every minute. These range from art to household tools to education materials. However, they are not easily searchable and it is difficult to find the objects that were intended as accessible learning resources. These can only be found quickly through the search on their site, and it will only find content in their domain. If you were to search for any of these objects with web search tools, they would be lost in the sea of search results. This tactile model of a carbon atom is a good example.

The solution: By tagging this content with accessibility metadata tags, a search engine can pick out just the objects that are tactile objects, making this valuable accessible content easily discoverable.

Search for it yourself: We have a library of accessible content and a Google custom search engine available. The links below will execute searches so that you can see realtime results.

  • Carbon – a large set of 163 results
  • Carbon, but only tactileGraphic or tactileObject – a much more refined set of results

The background: Gustav Knape, the creator of this example, has been researching the potential uses of 3D printing in classrooms for blind students with promising results.  His graduate thesis, found in Swedish here, investigates the results of using 3D printed models with an eleven-year-old and thirteen-year-old student in classes with sighted children. Below is a short abstract of the work in English.

“Students with blindness don’t have the same access to images in textbooks as sighted people do. They are instead given tactile pictures which can be time consuming and hard to interpret and some images are not even possible to form into a tactile picture.
This Master’s thesis explores the technical and pedagogical possibilities of using a 3D-printer for making educational models as a complement or sometimes a replacement for tactile pictures in schools.
The teachers of two students, in 4th and 6th grade, in two different schools were given a number of models which they could use as a part of their normal curriculum during four weeks’ time. The teachers were asked before about ideas and what they thought could be useful and the models were later 3D-printed at Lund University.
After the test period, the teachers and students were interviewed about the experienced value of having 3D-printed models as an education aid. Their conclusion was that it was an asset which increased the comprehension of the visually impaired students and also allowed them to participate more in some of the discussions of which they earlier couldn’t. They were all positive of in some way incorporating 3D-printed models in their teaching of the visually impaired children in the future.”

You can see more of Gustav’s work in his thesis or in his Thingverse collection of learning objects, where you can find the periodic table, solar system and many other items. Gustav’s not the only one looking at 3D printing for learning resources. Makerbot has also ran a blog entry about a retired biologist who has been creating 3D versions of images to improve learning for the visually impaired.

How we did it: In order to make this more easily discoverable, we have discussed adding accessibility metadata tags. While Thingiverse’s current pages have significant amounts of data, most of the information on the page, except for a few <span> tags, is presented only as text. With this in mind, there were a few challenges. First, I wanted to show that the overhead of tagging, especially with the minimum set, is small. The tags below declare that this is an object, give its name, and then describe its accessibility: it is an image object with tactile properties. If it has braille, which many do of Gustav’s objects do, it should also declare that in a mediaFeature.

<div itemscope="" itemtype=""><meta itemprop="name" content="Carbon Atom" />
<meta itemprop="accessMode" content="tactile" />
<meta itemprop="mediaFeature" content="tactileObject" />
<meta itemprop="mediaFeature" content="braille" /></div>

A few other tags can be added to be a bit more useful for education search, as this is a learning resource. These are from LRMI tags, and their meaning is very clear. This information begins the process of making clear that these are learning resources. Additional tags that tie this content to education and curriculum standards such as the Common Core should improve searchability even more as objects are tied to specific curriculum concepts.

<meta itemprop="learningResourceType" content="hands-on" />
<meta itemprop="typicalAgeRange" content="12-18" />
<meta itemprop="educationalUse" content="hands-on" />

Finally, a few more tags, such as keywords and the content area can be listed, improving search results. These would be just wrappers around the content in the page. They can be done as <span> tags when possible, but I have used <meta> tags for illustration. I also added an image property so that a thumbnail can be seen in the search results.

<meta itemprop="description" content="Carbon atom created for a student with blindness" />
<meta itemprop="keywords" content="Atom" />
<meta itemprop="keywords" content="Carbon" />
<meta itemprop="about" content="Science: Chemistry" />
<meta itemprop="about" content="Science: Physics" />
<meta itemprop="image" content="" />
<meta itemprop="author" content="Gustav Knape" />

Now let’s look at the pages and the summary from Google structured data testing tool. If you’ve come this far, you’ll care about the coding in context: do a “view source” of the tagged file in your tool of choice. The tags have “a11ymetadata” comments around them to make them easy to find.

Note: Since this was first written, I’ve exchanged emails with Gustav around his atoms. The idea has moved along, in the best view of open source collaboration.

Carbon atom with valence gapsVisualizing negative valence (holes) The first idea was to leave gaps in the outer ring where electrons were “missing.. This is the current design for the single carbon atom, as he made that change in place on his design. Only the picture above and a few models that were build with the earlier design show the model before gaps were placed in the ring.

Interlocking atomns for a water moleculeCombining atoms into molecules (interlocking) The second idea was to use the electrons and holes as interlocks. This makes simple molecules such as water, methane and ammonia possible. It doesn’t scale to larger molecules or make benzene rings, but it’s a great learning aid.