Using 3D Printers to Model Earth Surface Topography for Increased Student Understanding and Retention

Thursday 11:30am-1:30pm UMC Aspen Rooms
Poster Presentation Part of Digital Geology and Visualization


David Thesenga, Alexander Dawson School
Understanding and appreciating the geographic terrain is a complex but necessary requirement for middle school aged (11-14yo) students. Abstract in nature, topographic maps and other 2D renderings of the Earth's surface and features do not address the inherent spatial challenges of a concrete-learner and traditional methods of teaching can at times exacerbate the problem. Technological solutions such as 3D-imaging in programs like Google Earth are effective but lack the tactile realness that can make a large difference in learning comprehension and retention for these young students.

First developed in the 1980's, 3D printers were not commercial reality until recently and the rapid rise in interest has driven down the cost. With the advent of sub US$1500 3D printers, this technology has moved out of the high-end marketplace and into the local office supply store. Schools across the US and elsewhere in the world are adding 3D printers to their technological workspaces and students have begun rapid-prototyping and manufacturing a variety of projects.

This project attempted to streamline the process of transforming data from a variety of formats (initially GeoTIFFS) based on the 2000 Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) and the Global Multi-resolution Dataset (GMRT) by way of Python code. The resulting data was then inputted into a CAD-based program for visualization and exporting as a .stl file for 3D printing. A proposal for improving the method and making it more accessible to middle school aged students is provided. Using the SRTM data to print a hand-held visual representation of a portion of the Earth's surface would utilize existing technology in the school and alter how topography can be taught in the classroom. Combining methods of 2D paper representations, on-screen 3D visualizations, and 3D hand-held models, give students the opportunity to truly grasp and retain the information being provided.