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K-12 Design Project: Freight Car & Train

by jrothman, published

K-12 Design Project: Freight Car & Train by jrothman Feb 7, 2016


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This project - structurally designed for a full classroom (20 - 34 students) at the 5-12 grade-level (though it could absolutely be adapted to work for younger or older) - is intended to help students develop the mindset of a designer. The over-arching understanding that this project hopes to cultivate is that identifying & modeling basic elements that repeat throughout a design first, then duplicating and assembling those elements into larger and larger structures allows designers to work more efficiently.

This concept is explored with a simple train set, but the same learning goals can come from many other contexts. For example, I've also used a picket fence design with my students to incredible effect. With both the train and picket fence, 10th and 11th grade students have been able to explore the software we've been using (typically, Tinkercad), I've found that this project offers just the right balance of constraints and freedom for students across a variety skill levels to be expressive creatively while hitting intended learning goals. As well, this project has produced incredible results in a non-selective, non-"opt-in" classroom at a Title 1 school in New York City.

One thing to note: while the finished product could be a 3D print, that has never been practical in the typical high school classroom setting. I've always had a printed poster for the finished product featuring one or more screenshots of the design with an explanation as to the process, important CAD tools used, and reflections on how the project influenced the way they will approach future designs.

This thing was made with Tinkercad. Edit it online https://www.tinkercad.com/things/0RO6WsH2yGn


Learning Objectives:
In this project, students will learn to:

  1. Create a 3D model from an image (as opposed to instructions or an instructional video).
  2. Break an image in basic elements and repeated groupings of those elements.
  3. Use the tools of 3D CAD software to duplicate, mirror, translate, rotate, and arrange those groupings to create a complex design efficiently.

This project and the materials have been designed for grade 5-12 students in a design/3D modeling/3D printing class. It could be adapted for students both younger or older. The materials and structure of the project best suits a typical mid to large classroom size (20 to 34 students) in that it provides constraints and easily translatable goals and deliverables while allowing freedom for students to be creative in the details of the design. When students ask questions like, "Is this good enough?" I usually respond with, "Are you proud of it?" The idea is to develop their persistence and desire to push their skills with the software and design concepts.

Pedagogical-strategy: This project can work well as an individual project, but I've found that students learn more when they work on this in pairs. A paired design approach, where students trade roles of technician (the one working within CAD software) and production manager (the one directing the technician) every 5 to 10 minutes is highly encouraged.

I usually roll this out as a 3 - 5 day project with specific deliverables for each day, but it can be adapted to work for other class lengths or workshop contexts. Materials are provided for each day in the space below. Teachers are encouraged to take, copy, and adapt the materials linked below (both presentation and worksheets) as appropriate for your students. I have developed Google documents with questions that students complete as they work on their design. Their purpose is to keep students actively reflecting on the higher-level conceptual goals of the project as well as to allow the teacher to monitor progress and provide feedback/grades for each day's work.

Note: If teachers want to use the worksheets, I recommend using either Google Classroom and Doctopus to distribute them to their students.

Day/Session 1 (1 - 1.5 hours): Introduce/make explicit the concept of basic elements within a design (see Tetris example in the Prezi presentation). Introduce the design (a train) and ask students to identify the basic elements of the train (wheels, bed, chassis, and connectors).

Introduce the task for this first session: design 1 wheel, 1 chassis, 1 connector, and 1 open bed. Emphasize the importance of using this workflow and - if students aren't articulating the workflow - the instructor should articulate it openly, which is: Build each piece first, but do not focus on assembly (other than to check for proportion). Instead, focus on creating parts that are accurate, symmetric, well-aligned, and proportional to one another. Set aside a copy of each piece so that it can be used to build more complex groupings of each part of the train.

By the end of the day's task, each student should have these parts, which can be more or less-detailed in their complexity (appropriate for the level of experience and skill for your students):
Image of Parts of the Freight Car

Day 1 Materials (please copy and adapt)

Let students work on their wheel, chassis, connector, and open bed. The most complex object to create will be the open bed as is the most detailed and requires the most operations to create.

Differentiation: Some students might benefit from having a file that already contains the basic elements (wheel, chassis, open bed, and connector). Providing this would still allow them to develop their understanding of the primary learning goal while helping them past the initial hurdle of designing the basic elements from scratch.

If possible, save time at the end of the period for 1 - 2 groups to share their work with the rest of the class and discuss their process for creating the open (the tools needed to hollow the inside and create panels that are evenly spaced on both sides of the car). Ask students: Why do you think we're approaching the design of our train in this way? Will doing it this way benefit the final design? Why or why not?

Day/Session 2 (1 - 1.5 hrs): The Do Now for today's session gets students thinking about how they can apply this idea of basic elements and larger groupings to other contexts (see Prezi).

The deliverable for Day 2 is an assembled freight car and a line of freight cars. The teacher's line of questioning should help students identify the more efficient workflow: assemble one freight car from the parts created in the previous session, then duplicate the freight car to create a line of freight car. Hopefully students will identify how that each freight car need not be identical to the other. They can change the color or add/remove details to make each car unique.

Day 2 Materials (please copy and adapt)

Like before, try to share student work if time allows and encourage conversation about the process. Ask: Once you assembled your first freight car, how long did it take you to create the line of freight cars? Was anyone able to finish even earlier? If so, what tools or strategies did you do that allowed you to design so quickly?

Day/Session 3 (1 - 1.5 hrs): Today's Do Now gets students thinking explicitly about tools they would use to build a freight car that demonstrates the kind of symmetry and balance of the one in the presentation.

The deliverable for day 3 is a locomotive. Now students are creating something unique from the rest of their train design. Ask: what parts of the freight car can be used to design the locomotive. Make sure that the students can articulate the idea that smart design involves the least "creating from scratch" possible.

Day 3 Materials (please copy and adapt)

By the end of this project, the students should have a 1) 3D model with a full train, 2) pages of documentation and reflection on the modeling process, 3) whole class discussion sharing what they learned and how this workflow might influence how they approach a design in the future.

Other extensions or options include:

  1. Personalize! Create a caboose. Add stores, commodities, dry goods, or other supplies to the freight cars. Or add people, animals, aliens, or passengers of any sort. This can get really fun, especially when students add things from previous designs.
  2. Create a poster with screenshots and a written summary that reflects on the workflow/process used to create the trains (basic elements and larger groupings). Put them up in the hallway so that students have the opportunity to show off and take pride in their work! (I always have my students do this.)
  3. 3D print the work. Discuss the feasibility of printing the designs and the settings that must be enabled in the slicer software so that an FDM printer could successfully print model of their train. Ask: What might we need to do differently to create a train set that actually rolled?

Above all, have fun! This is such a wonderful project - kids really take ownership and it's so great to have something where the results are so unique!

Hope you enjoy! If you use it, I'd love to hear how it worked for you and how you tweaked it to make it work for your students!

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