Printing History-A Learning Experience

sticker 2In the Summer of 2019, I had a blast in a class on Emerging Technology in Education by Professor Bryan Alexander at Georgetown University. As a final project, we were asked to explore one of the technologies we studied. I have been interested in 3-D printing technology for years and jumped at the opportunity to work with a partner, Camron Robinson, to create a 3D project.

I wanted to interleave old and new, and we developed the idea of printing a version of the Gutenberg press. To add to the learning opportunity, and build on my knowledge of the Metaverse AR app (from my previous project, EdTechne), we thought to have the 3D printed printer print a QR code that would take you to the app! Print-ception!

The final artifact of the project was a lesson plan that created an inquiry-based interdisciplinary lesson that had students learn about the 3-D printing, the history of printing and explored the importance of and risks in the free exchange of ideas in a society.

The Design and Print Process

Our first step was to source a design of a Gutenberg-like press that we could easily print. We found one on the Thingiverse site. It seemed to be made by a student for a history project (double win!). It was a great start but was missing the metal components list and the file for the print plates.



IMG_8020 3As part of our course, we were honored to have been working with and in the Georgetown Maker Hub. With the support of the team there, and after some trial and error in the printing, the third time we were able to get a good print on the red press piece using the Ultimaker 2 3-D printer. The support components were all printed on the MakerBot Replicator. Once we had the printers printed, we did some guesswork to determine what the metal components would be and then built our printers!IMG_2826

Once they were printed and assembled, I measured and designed the print plates on TinkerCad. We also realized we needed a press ball for the shaft and Camron created and prototyped that a few times, also using TinkerCad.

IMG_2627After a couple of prototypes on the print plates, we had plates that fit. We then decided on what designs we would want for the plates and decided to print:

To make the print plate designs, we used a combination of apps to create a simple .jpg image for each plate. In designing the QR code, we inverted the black and white colors to make the ink printed version the proper color. We then flipped each image to print in the right direction. To fabricate the plates we used the Maker Hub’s VLS 4.60 Laser Cutter. We then cut three passes into 1/4″ MDF board to make the relief nice and deep for printing.

IMG_9594We then tested our prints with custom cut paper, print ink, used a 3″ Bayer and print plate. They worked! Even the QR code!


Designing the History Component

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Parallel to our work in on the 3D printed component, Camron and I worked to develop a history of printing lesson. We used a number of resources to research the history of printing, then designed a set of pathways within the Metaverse app experience to teach an outline of the history. You can read the whole script of the experience in the lesson plan.

Throughout the lesson the experience switches between AR features and internal backgrounds, which allows the student to feel part of the physical world, or focus as needed. The lesson is split into two sections, The History of Printing and The Future of Printing.

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 7.12.16 PM.pngWithin the lesson, I included eight links to outside resources, from a detailed timeline of the history to a vintage instructional video on Mimeo machines, that would let students explore deeper learning as their interests guided them.  At the end of the history strand, there is the opportunity for students to step into and look around the LA Times or NY Times printing press, using the 360° feature of the app.

In order to help students understand the future of printing we explored major industries being disrupted by the technology, by viewing short YouTube videos that explore agriculture, architecture, fashion, and medicine. If you would like to see a demo of the history experience, please see the screen recording of a simple experience:


One of the design principles of this lesson is that printing is a proxy for a discussion of responsible use and development of technology. In order to help students with these difficult ideas I developed an inquiry lesson for deep understanding.

Firstly, I developed some key questions to guide the discussion:

  • What is our responsibility when developing and using technology?
  • What is the importance of free exchange of information in a democracy?
  • How does technology enable social change?

Then collected some primary sources for Socratic discussion:

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
-Isaac Newton, 1695

What does Newton mean?

“…I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. …The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
― Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carringon, 1787, “Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington.”

Why do you think Jefferson says that he would prefer newspapers without government? What do you think Jefferson would say about freedom on speech on the internet?

“Every school boy and school girl who has arrived at the age of reflection ought to know something about the history of the art of printing, papermaking, and so forth. … All children will work better if pleased with their tools; and there are no tools more ingeniously wrought, or more potent than those which belong to the art of the printer. Dynasties and governments used to be attacked and defended by arms; now the attack and the defence are mainly carried on by types. To sustain any scheme of state policy, to uphold one administration or to demolish another, types, not soldiers, are brought into line. Hostile parties, and sometimes hostile nations, instead of fitting out martial or naval expeditions, establish printing presses, and discharge pamphlets or octavoes at each other, instead of cannon balls. The poniard and the stiletto were once the resource of a murderous spirit; now the vengeance, which formerly would assassinate in the dark, libels character, in the light of day, through the medium of the press.

But through this instrumentality good can be wrought as well as evil. Knowledge can be acquired, diffused, perpetuated. An invisible, inaudible, intangible thought in the silent chambers of the mind, breaks away from its confinement, becomes imbodied in a sign, is multiplied by myriads, traverses the earth, and goes resounding down to the latest posterity.”
― Horace Mann “Printing and Paper Making” in The Common School Journal Vol. V, No. 3 (1 February 1843)

Why did Mann think that every child should learn about the art of printing? What do you think would be the modern skill that would serve the same function?

“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
― Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: From an Interview. Comments made in 1974 during an interview with the French writer Roger Errera and published in October 26, 1978 issue of The NewYork Review of Books Interview. Copyright © 1978 Mary McCarthy West, Trustee.

What does Arendt believe is the danger of censoring publication? What do you think the implications are in the digital communication age?

“I know that science and technology are not just cornucopias pouring good deeds out into the world. Scientists not only conceived nuclear weapons; they also took political leaders by the lapels, arguing that their nation — whichever it happened to be — had to have one first. … There’s a reason people are nervous about science and technology.

And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our world—from Dr. Faust to Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning children’s television. (All this doesn’t inspire budding scientists.) But there’s no way back. We can’t just conclude that science puts too much power into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power-crazed politicians and decide to get rid of it. Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history. Advances in transportation, communication, and entertainment have transformed the world. The sword of science is double-edged. Rather, its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibility — more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective, an incentive to avoid easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism. Mistakes are becoming too expensive.”
― Carl Sagan, in “Why We Need To Understand Science” in The Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 14, Issue 3, (Spring 1990)

What are the dangers that Sagan identifies? What is our responsibility with technology?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Do you agree with Steinbeck? Why or why not?


In our final class of the course, Camron and I presented our lesson and our classmates tested our printing presses and gave feedback for our process.

Overall I am very pleased with the way this lesson came together! It was a wonderful experience working in the Maker Hub and with all the technology.

I, as always, welcome feedback on this lesson and if you have any questions about the process, please reach out!



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