Skip to page content
You are here: Home > Stories > 3D thinking sparks imagination

3D thinking sparks imagination

Thirteen-year-old Cantabrians have been exploring solutions to problems through three-dimensional thinking.

Using the 3D printing software

Sixty Year 9 students have been using 3D scanners, 3D design software, laser cutting and 3D printing to create a sea environment and a temperature-driven engine, as part of a three-day project in Christchurch.

Half of the students worked in the computer lab on creating and printing 3D designs of things found in polluted marine environments, such as dead animals and trash. The other half later designed and 3D printed examples of a healthy ocean such as fish and other sea creatures.

3D printed fish

Although sea life might seem unrelated to the high-tech digital approaches used in the workshops, the students were shown how things like 3D printing can actually help scientists safeguard our shellfish.

“We can 3D print the base of this invasive Japanese seaweed and see how it attaches to mussels - to find out why and how this seaweed damages mussels without spreading the weed around and making the problem worse,” ecologist Mads Thomsen explains.

“We can also print out places for baby pāua to live, which normally hide under the bases of bull kelp. If the kelp dries out – like after Kaikōura’s earthquake – this is very bad, but 3D printing ‘temporary shelters’ can help keep pāua alive.”

The students did 3D scanning too, in which a hand-held device was used to ‘capture’ the entire shape of an object – ranging from shells to phones to computer mice. The scan was then saved as a 3D image that can be viewed and edited using design software.

Scanning a computer mouse

Afterwards they learnt how these 3D scans can be used in things like virtual reality software. They had a go at wearing virtual reality headsets and using controllers to explore different environments, including the Solar System and inside a robot.

“I enjoyed playing around with the 3D scanner,” says Elliott, 13. “I'd like to one day scan something that moves and make a new kind of animation.”

Classmate John adds, “I really liked the virtual reality part!”

Using the virtual reality kit

All the students explored how to build a Stirling engine. This has been used in biofuel hybrid cars, converting solar energy into electricity and in NASA’s Stirling radioisotope generator (SRG) for powering deep space probes on missions that last decades.

To make the engine more efficient and interesting, each student designed and laser cut a unique flywheel. The flywheel helps to keep the engine’s momentum going once it has been kick-started into action.

“I thought making the engine was cool,” says Paul, 13. “I liked how it ran on just the energy from the hot water we added.”

Samantha, also 13, tells us, “I liked experiencing all of the technology we’ve used – it’s been great.”

Building the engine

Stefanie Gutschmidt, who co-leads the project with University of Canterbury colleague Don Clucas, tells us that she finds it upsetting when students shift to a focus on grades and lose their natural curiosity about how things work.

“Year 9 students are on the cusp of becoming adults and I’ve seen that 18-year-olds no longer have that 'curiosity thinking' that we all have as kids. I’m trying to help keep that going.”

Don adds, “I really want them to stay excited about technology, engineering and how easy it is to make cool things. I hope we’ve managed to show them that their only limit is their imagination!”

Students working on engine

About the project

UC Engineering logo
3 Dimensional Design: Imagination is the Limitation
 is run by the University of Canterbury, with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.



Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

Find out more

View all stories