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3D printing and educational equity at ALA Annual

Guest Blogger Rebeccah Baker served as the Student-to-Staff Program participant for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference. Rebeccah completed her M.L.S. at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies in May 2016.

Model of a DNA double helix.
Model of a DNA double helix. Image from the Benetech Diagram Center.

“3D printing is the latest wave of the digital revolution,” as stated by OITP’s senior information policy analyst Charlie Wapner during the session “3D Accessibility Synergy: Anchor Institutions ‘Make’ Opportunities for Diverse Learners” at the 2016 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference held in Orlando, Florida. This OITP session focused on the forward-thinking partnership between libraries, museums, schools and the Silicon Valley-based social advocacy organization Benetech. Dr. Lisa Wadors Verne, program manager of Education, Research, and Partnerships for Benetech discussed the organization’s aspiration to level the playing field for learners with disabilities. Imagine 3D printing a model of DNA at your library and having the opportunity to witness learners, regardless of their level of ability, better understand the model through multimodal learning.

Benetech’s Diagram Center, which is primarily funded by the Office of Special Education Programming in the U.S. Department of Education, is leading the effort to create learning tools and strategies that help individuals with print and other disabilities more easily grasp complex science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) topics. The center focuses on taking the images and information within books and bringing that information directly into the hands of the learners through tactile representations. Tactile representations are traditionally expensive learning tools, but 3D printed alternatives provide the benefits of being both customizable and low-cost. The organization is actively working with publishers to make books that are born-accessible. Examples of these tactile representations include:

  • Haptic feedback technology used for charts
  • Sonification for bell curve illustrations
  • 3D printed models

Benetech has created a Repository of Accessible 3D Objects that is actively expanding as well as a Quick Start Guide to 3D Printing and Accessible Education  which is designed for institutions with new makerspace programs and is constantly updated to remain relevant.

OITP wants library staff to feel confident with the knowledge and skills needed to develop their makerspace. Wapner has developed a tip sheet, “Progress in the Making: An Introduction to 3D Printing and Public Policy”, white paper, “Progress in the Making: 3D Printing Policy Considerations through the Library Lens”, and the report “Toward a More Printed Union.” Libraries possess three unique characteristics that provide the optimal environment for people to explore 3D printing:

  • Non-judgmental work spaces
  • Ubiquitous with libraries in communities across the country
  • Informal-learning labs that promote experimentation and creativity

The number of public libraries that provide access to 3D printing has rapidly increased in the United States, which OITP is very involved in advocating for since this topic involves copyright, patent, trademark, product reliability, and intellectual freedom issues. “3D printing represents the present, not just the future,” said Wapner. 3D printed tactile representations offer a means for disabled learners to face struggles with self-confidence through creating accessible models of complex STEM topics, making this technology an invaluable asset to any library.

As a recent M.L.S. graduate, first time ALA conference attendee, and soon to be Federal employee, attending OITP’s conference sessions as the University of Maryland’s Student-to-Staff  representative was an overwhelmingly pleasant learning experience. OITP’s sessions gave me the opportunity to learn about how policy leaders are addressing real world challenges in education, the digital disconnect, and entrepreneurship with innovative solutions and collaborative partnerships with libraries. These sessions reminded me of the importance of our profession and why I chose to pursue a career in this field.

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Alan Inouye

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