Alaska News

With $20,000 grant, Northwest Arctic schools purchase 3-D printers

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace these days and thanks in part to a $20,000 grant from Verizon, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District is right on step.

The district purchased 3-D printers with the cash, one for each of the 12 schools in the region.

Lose your pen? Just print one. Did the dog eat your gym shoe? Print one.

That's not exactly how it works, or what it will be used for, but the concept seems almost magical.

"It's 'Star Trekkie' kind of stuff," joked Jon Wehde, the career and technical education director for the school district.

"3-D printing has taken us from the conventional two-dimensional drawings and now we're able to interpret our drawing and our design and our drafting and actually build the objects. The machine literally takes a spool of high-test plastic-like material and builds."

The 3-D printer reads every slice, or 2-D image, from a digital file and proceeds to generate the object, blending each layer together, resulting in one three-dimensional object.


"3-D printing is everywhere; in a couple years our students will look at 3-D printers as a necessary tool like the way you and I used to look at a paper printer," Wehde said. "We told Verizon that this isn't an isolated idea where we're going to let kids sit and make trinkets because it's fun."

The boost in funds that purchased the printers has given the district the finances to accelerate programs that include science, technology, engineering and math education across the region, and an intensive two-week training for high school students at the Star of the Northwest Magnet School in Kotzebue.

Verizon's innovative learning grant aims to help provide teachers with the resources they need to use technology more effectively to engage students in STEM. The district was one of 80 recipients across the country.

The hope is to boost interest in STEM fields by incorporating 3-D printing technology and curriculum in STEM labs in the high schools within the region, Wehde said.

3-D printing has the potential to revolutionize life in rural Alaska. Currently, all goods are shipped via barge or plane to remote communities, but 3-D printing creates the potential to produce necessary products and parts locally.

"We created this program to support the integration of innovative STEM initiatives in schools across the country, and we are pleased to recognize the 80 schools that have been chosen to receive the award," said Justina Nixon-Saintil, education program director for the Verizon Foundation, in a release. "The proposal submitted by the Northwest Arctic Borough School District exemplifies the type of initiatives that will provide exposure to students around STEM fields, and also offer students hands-on project-based learning opportunities that will help increase their interest and achievement in STEM."

The demand for STEM-educated workers is well known and growing every year.

"We're tremendously thankful to receive this grant," said Brian Krosschell, director of state and federal programs for the district. "3-D printing has the power to transform life in Arctic villages and improve the lives of our students and our families. Our goal is to get students inspired and build their skills, and we're very excited to get started."

The printers should be up and running next semester, Krosschell said last week.

"We wished to begin equipping many mini STEM centers in each of our schools to complement the larger effort that the district is making in STEM for the Star of Northwest Magnet School project," explained Wehde, who has worked in education for 35 years, including as district superintendent in Nome. "It's just a wonderful alignment."

The new Magnet School in Kotzebue has several STEM-centered elements, including process technology, health science, public education, architecture, construction and culinary arts, he said. The new printers and labs will allow students to get a head start in the field, and high school seniors in the rural school will also be given the chance to stay at the Magnet School for a two-week training called ReadiSTAR.

"These kids that come in for two weeks for intensive training are 11th- and 12th-graders who come in and live in the new dormitory and enter into a variety of studies that are difficult to replicate at the (rural) sites because we just don't have a lot of STEM teachers or process tech teachers," Wehde said. "They will have quite the astounding experience."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.