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Middle school 3D printing program garners international attention

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The price of 3-D printers has dropped sharply over the last two years, with machines that once cost $20,000, now at $1,000 or less, educators say.

With a Japanese television news crew keeping close watch last week, science students at Buford Middle School in Virginia crafted their own sound speakers from plastic and paper.

They did it using three-dimensional printers and computer design software to produce plastic supports, paper cones, and other pieces.

“I think it’s interesting that they’re including 3D computerization and printing into the education program at this level and what it means for the future of job training in the U.S.,” said Takashi Yanagisawa, a correspondent with Japan’s Nippon Television. “This is what President Barack Obama talked of in his State of the Union address, about bringing technology into schools for job training.”

Yanagisawa and his cohorts are producing a segment for Japanese television that will feature the Buford Middle School class as an example of U.S. efforts to bring more technology into schools.

“We’re in on the ground floor of bringing manufacturing and technology into the classrooms,” said Jim Henderson, assistant superintendent for Charlottesville, Va., schools. “We’re participating with Piedmont Virginia Community College and the University of Virginia, and we hope to make this a seventh- through 12th-grade program. This is the start.”

The start is the result of a $300,000 state grant to create a “laboratory school for advanced manufacturing technologies.”

The school is a collaboration between UVa and the city to teach science and engineering in grade schools and prepare students for high-tech jobs. It also gives future teachers experience in combining engineering concepts and traditional science education.

Eventually, advanced manufacturing technology programs will be added at Jack Jouett Middle School in Albemarle County and at Charlottesville and Albemarle high schools. The sites will be linked to each other and UVa via video conferencing.

Next year, the lab school plans to offer courses to 500 or so eighth-graders at the two middle schools. Each year, a new grade level would be added. High school students eventually would get the chance to study advanced manufacturing through double-enrollment with Piedmont Virginia Community College.

The price of 3-D printers has dropped sharply over the last two years, with machines that once cost $20,000, now at $1,000 or less, educators said. Although they don’t expect printers to replace current factories, the engineering and technology behind the software and the devices will change how goods are made in the near future.

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