3D Educational Services Making Robotics More Accessible to Classrooms

January 13, 2019

CHELMSFORD -- As robotics and 3D printing continue to grow in importance, more and more schools are looking for ways to add learning opportunities for students.

However, it can quickly become very expensive to bring robotics into classrooms in a way that makes learning accessible and individualized.

3D Educational Services, an emerging tech startup recently moved from Brick Kiln Road to a shared OfficeLinks space on Billerica Road, started about two years ago with the aim to make robotics more accessible by providing affordable classroom kits.

Rather than work in groups around shared kits, the 3DES model makes it possible for every student to get their own microcomputer and robotics materials which they get to keep after the course is over, said Satish Mantripragada, corporate strategy and business development lead.

“The idea is that the student gets to assemble the robot using these parts, and then also be able to program it using an online tool by Microsoft which is called MakeCode,” Mantripragada, of Chelmsford, said, showing off one of the kits.

Using block programming, students program Micro:bit processors to control robots and connected sensors.

“Each of these blocks is a statement that directs any robot connected to this controller,” said 3DES co-founder Rich Thall, of Stow, pointing to the commands Mantripragada entered.

Many of the bigger brand name kits, such as LEGO Mindstorm and VEX Robotics, can cost $500 or more per kit. 3DES base kits range from about $70 for a beginner kit to $150 for an advanced kit, with add-ons totaling an additional $20 to $30 or so per level.

The brainchild of Co-founder Nandu Vellal, of Westford -- who was not available for an interview due to a family emergency in India -- 3DES’s origins are in computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing.

For a couple years, Vellal ran Creation Station in Westford, a high-tech learning and makerspace that allowed children to explore science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) in a hands-on way.

Wanting to take the project-based learning programs to school classrooms and after-school programs, Vellal decided to change his model and connected with Thall to create 3DES, Mantripragada said.

In addition to robotics kits, 3DES offers curriculum and workshops for CAD, 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

Thall said the goal is to help children visualize a three-dimensional object and then give them the tools to create it, “from the mind’s eye to the palm of your hand.”

At the more advanced levels, students can design extension pieces like sensor attachments for the robots that 3DES will print for them to use, Mantripragada said.

Science teacher David Weir, of Tyngsboro, said he first met Vellal a few years ago when Weir was teaching at Westford Academy. Weir had gone to Creation Station to get some items he needed for an engineering lesson 3D printed, and Vellal offered his services at no charge.

Last year, when Weir was teaching at South Merrimack Christian Academy, in Merrimack, N.H., he collaborated with Vellal once again to bring robotics design and programming into his classroom. With more of a background in physics and chemistry, Weir said he wouldn’t have been able to teach middle school robotics without Vellal’s help.

Each of Weir’s students programmed the microprocessors and put them on robotic cars with light, ultrasonic and compass sensors. The students got to see in real time how the robots would react to their commands, making for a more engaging experience, he said.

“Talk is cheap, but when you can see each one of them has a microprocessor that is doing what it is programmed to do, you know they are engaged,” Weir said. “The ones that got it right away shared it with other kids -- not sharing answers, but helping them learn how to do it so their microprocessor or robot can perform.”

He said 3DES will also be coming to Tabernacle Christian School in Hudson, N.H., where Weir teaches now, to work on 3D printing with his physics classes next month. Weir said he also hopes to do robotics with his older students.

In addition to traveling to schools to lead lessons, 3DES has also started a new model of training teachers to teach the lessons on their own, Mantripragada said. He said they are currently working with a Tyngsboro middle school teacher for an after-school robotics group, and hope to work with educators at more local school districts.

For more information on 3D Educational Services and its classroom robotics kits, visit 3desinc.biz and buildurrobot.com .

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.

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