3-D printing to enter science classrooms

A myriad of knick-knacks created by the 3-D printer located in the media development center of Hale Library sit on display April 14, 2015. (Lauren Nagle | The Collegian)

Science is in a constant state of technological advances and K-State science programs are working to keep up with the times. At the April 3 bioinformatics workshop, faculty discussed the implementation of 3-D printing of molecules and proteins for real-life visualization in classrooms.

“I think that it will give them a much better understanding of how cells and molecules interact with each other,” Dan Andresen, associate professor in computing and information science, said. “It’s a 3-D situation, not 2-D one and books only show it one level, which can sometimes make it harder to understand. Students will come out of it with a lot better knowledge of what’s going on inside the body.”

Faculty considered the PyMol system, which is a open-source molecular-graphics system. Andresen said he thinks this change was brought on by the large scale expansion of interest in 3-D printing and how it can be implemented into real life situations. When faculty considered better ways to teach their students about complex concepts like how proteins work together within the body, having 3-D models could make quite the difference.

“Seeing to-scale models of molecules and proteins would be hugely beneficial in the classroom,” Haley McMurphy, junior in kinesiology, said. “Sometimes it is so hard to wrap your head around how molecules actually look. Just seeing a picture isn’t enough to fully grasp the concept.”

Andresen said he hopes students will strengthen their intuition and imagination about scientific fields so they have a better understanding of how biological systems work in real life. While hands-on education is already a big part of science courses due to the amount of lab courses required for many students, the implementation of 3-D printed materials could help further engage students.

“We are all learning about biology as a subject but not as a career,” Tori Matta, sophomore in biology, said. “I think a more hands-on experience would really help give my classmates and I a better idea of what a biologist actually does. I think having to-scale models would make identifying each part of the molecules easier. Microscopes are great but sometimes it’s difficult to tell one blurry smudge from another.”

As technology advances, science courses have to develop to keep up. McMurphy said that the real life experiences she’s had in her science courses have kept her interested and help better round out her education.

“Having a more hands-on education really enriches my learning by providing real life examples for learning instead of having to guess what situations or molecules are like,” McMurphy said.

From a computer-based side, Andresen said he is impressed by how far the technology for 3-D printing has come and is enthusiastic about how his students in computer programming courses can also learn from the PyMol system.

“As a computer science professor, I appreciate that all of this is backed up by super computing,” Andresen said. “Lots and lots of hours went into finding out what might work and now we can use 3-D printers to see what will work.”