Printing Out Trees: Toward the Design of Tangible Objects for Education

D. Andersen, C. Bennett, P. Huynh, L. Rassbach, S. Reardon, and M. Eisenberg (USA)


Computers and education; three-dimensional printing; simulation and visualization; biological modeling; L systems.


When educational technologists employ a term like “scientific visualization”, what they usually mean is that scientific concepts or information are portrayed creatively on a two-dimensional screen. Increasingly, however, the advent of novel fabrication devices enables computers to “print out” physical objects that can themselves serve as models or representations of scientific concepts. This paper describes a working prototype of an educational application, entitled Growth, that enables users to print physical models of trees (and other botanical forms) with the aid of a 3D prototyping device. We describe the implementation of the program (and the mathematical theory of “L-systems” that underlies its biological content); and we show several examples of “printed-out trees” in plaster created with the software. The paper ends by arguing that Growth is an early instance of a style of educational software that is likely to burgeon in importance and variety during the coming decade.

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