Virtual reality 3D painting

It’s a way of thinking and playing with things that’s totally different for kids. There’s something that’s very tactile about creating something yourself.

Jeannie Rakamnuaykit

When Luke Reichley was in elementary school 20-odd years ago, paint and clay were his primary tools for making.

While children have long used their imaginations to create toys and art from whatever is at hand, digital technologies are opening new opportunities for educators to bring making into their classrooms. This summer, Reichley and his fellow elementary teacher candidates at the University of Washington College of Education are experiencing a glimpse into that future.

During a recent visit to the UW’s CoMotion MakerSpace, teams of teacher candidates sat next to a wall of 3D printers while putting the final touches on small objects they’ll use for instruction in the coming weeks. Nearby, other candidates laughed and gasped in astonishment as they tried their hands at 3D virtual reality painting or swam with life-sized whales.

“My students are going to be working with 3D printing and virtual reality and things like that,” Reichley said. “A lot of these tools are new to me, but it’s obvious that this is where things are going, these are the tools that are going to be available to our students.”

Taking advantage of those opportunities to fuel student learning is the intent behind the UW College of Education’s technology course for pre-service teachers being led by Jenny Gawronski, a doctoral student in curriculum and instruction and long-time artist herself.

“Our teacher candidates will be teaching in elementary schools populated by students who are growing up in the digital age,” Gawronski said. “These elementary-age students may have cultivated different digital practices outside of school with their friends and families. I see the elementary students’ digital practices as funds of knowledge and ways of knowing that teacher candidates can tap into as they design their lessons.”

Gawronski first taught the education technology course last summer and brought teacher candidates to the CoMotion MakerSpace for a tour. That small taste enticed her to go further in revamping the course , and she approached CoMotion with the idea of providing UW teacher candidates with a hands-on experience using new making technologies.

That led to a partnership with Nick Logler, a doctoral student in the UW’s iSchool, who is helping introduce teacher candidates to TinkerCAD, an easy-to-use 3D design and modeling tool that enables anyone to make and print models.

Logler is excited to see the UW teacher candidates build their comfort level using technology in creative ways, without having to feel that they’re an expert.

“These tools can create opportunities for really exciting project-based learning,” Logler said. “I think that sets up a very powerful classroom environment because you start to tap into your students’ intrinsic motivations.” 

The possibility to shift from following a set curriculum in which students complete the same assignments to learning that is driven more by student interests excites Jeannie Rakamnuaykit, especially as digital making tools become more accessible.

“It’s a way of thinking and playing with things that’s totally different for kids,” Rakamnuaykit said. “There’s something that’s very tactile about creating something yourself.”

For the teacher candidates, a key goal of the course is to develop a mindset to think critically about how to engage with new technologies and make use of them in their teaching.

“I’ve been trying to find ways of taking the same lessons and experiences with making I learned as a kid and finding new ways of incorporating that with all these new tools,” Reichley said.

Making in Teacher Education

Later this summer, the teacher candidates will have an opportunity to try out what they’ve discovered about student-led, interest-driven learning with Seattle elementary students, and Gawronski believes the hands-on experience in a makerspace environment will empower teacher candidates as they enter the classroom.

“Acknowledging their students’ digital practices as an important way of knowing can help teachers create learning experiences that are more relevant and engaging,” Gawronski said. “Hopefully it also will inspire teachers to say ‘You know what, I really want to make a resource that isn’t available, and I could make that with 3D printing.’ That could really open up their mindset to not be limited by what resources are made now, but to think about the lives of their students and even design new resources using these tools.”

For teacher candidate Marquia Monteiro, having tools that can remove limitations for students fills her with hope.

“With virtual reality, my students can go places they wouldn’t typically see,” she said. “With the 3D printing, being able to put your visions into something you can hold in your hand and touch and play with, it’s a really rewarding experience. You can say ‘I did this, I made this with my own two hands.’”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications