Making and cutting in the classroom – How to combine DIY and technology

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Making (coming from the name of Make magazine first published in 2005) is simply Do It Yourself enhanced with technology. In the past decades tools which before were only available for industries and professional use could make their way to the garages of enthusiasts, FabLabs and finally to schools. The four major tools that can make a makerspace are:

  • soldering station (and electronics, especially micro-controllers)
  • 3D printer
  • laser cutter
  • CNC carver

Out of these probably the laser cutter is the most expensive, but unfortunately in some aspects the best suited for a school. Our school had the luck to get one, an 80W CO2 machine which is way above the level a school would need, but that is not a problem. A laser cutter guides a laser beam very precisely to the material being worked on. The beam heats the material in a very small point, burning it. This way, anything that can burn or melt can be cut with the machine. It can be cardboard, wood or certain plastics. However, to cut metal you need special equipment and coating. The machine can engrave as well as cut, even bitmap pictures can be engraved on acryl or wood. The whole process produces smoke and fumes so a filter is essential.

The real advantage of a laser cutter is that it works fast. You can make your design and cut it in a couple of minutes. While 3D printers take hours to make a small object, with the laser cutter it is a matter of minutes. That makes it suitable for classroom use as the students can get their designs at the end of a 45 minutes lesson. Designing for the laser cutter is easy, any vector graphics software can be used. For us, the free Inkscape program worked well. There is a plethora of good tutorials for Inkscape on the web and it even has free plugins especially for laser cutting (for the design of boxes or gears for example).

In my classes I have 15-18 students and we work together for 80 minutes per week. At the end of each class every student can hold something they have designed in their hands. This would not be possible with 3D printing or even with carving. Let’s see what the things are they made!

Map of Budapest
Diorama
Figurine
Escher’s lizards I.
Escher’s lizards II.
Map of Hungary
Lab equipment
Name tag
Spinner
Sticker

The first design is always a name tag, which is very simple to do but with it they learn the absolute basics of vector graphics. After that we made holiday decorations, standing figurines, dioramas, model houses. When the students were familiar with the principles of laser cutting, they could use it to make things for projects in other classes. For instance, paper models of lab equipment for a poster.

The laser cutter can also help the work of teachers. Custom made learning tools can be made with it quickly and nicely. Our students in the high school designed puzzle maps for the Geography classes in the primary school, one with the districts of Budapest and another with the counties of Hungary. We also made a bunch of Escher’s lizards for the request of a mathematics teacher.

You do not necessarily need your own laser cutter to work with it, Fablabs and makerspaces in major cities let you use them for a friendly fee.

Author: Gergely Nádori

All pictures are the author’s own.

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