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Why maker technology is crucial for students with learning difficulties


3D printing and hands-on learning opens up new worlds to some students

difficulties-stemI had always been good at building or “making” with my hands. Whether it was helping my dad with repairs around the house or building model airplanes, I found tremendous focus and inspiration with these types of projects.

The classroom was another matter. Throughout my time in school, I struggled greatly with traditional learning methods. My teachers quickly became frustrated with my lack of enthusiasm and focus on my work. Most assumed I was unintelligent or lazy. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of sixteen that things began to change.

Like myself, other students with learning difficulties—from dysgraphia (a difficulty with writing, mainly in spelling) and attention disorders like ADD and ADHD—respond well to visual or tactile learning and activities that allow physical participation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And these learning impediments are not as uncommon as you might imagine. In the US alone, approximately eight percent of children were identified by a health professional as having a learning disorder, according to a 2014 study. As these types of difficulties become more recognized every day, the importance of adjusting teaching methods has started to increase accordingly.

Depending on the effect of the disorder itself, some students struggle with focus, others with reading and writing skills, all of which are fundamental to a typical classroom setting. In order to garner the same results in the classroom between students with learning difficulties and standard learners, various schools have adopted alternative teaching methods, primarily utilizing technology. Not only is technology promoting successful results for students with learning disorders, but it is also spurring additional interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Next page: Inspiring STEM careers with technology

Because technology is a constantly changing industry, new products are emerging onto the market daily. Devices intended for home and recreational use, like iPads, have, of course, found their way into the classroom and become essential tools to learning. And tools like 3D printers are capable of teaching the basics of design and engineering in a more fun, demonstrative way than any textbook lesson.

This type of hands-on learning is even more effective for students with learning disorders. Tablets, projectors, computers, and 3D printers all have components which engage students physically and help maintain their focus. For these students, being able to engage and interact physically with the subjects they are working on is key to promoting understanding of traditional concepts and confidence in their own abilities.

STEM and learning difficulties

There is a somewhat obvious connection between the use of technology and an increase in students’ interest in STEM. According to the National Science Foundation, individuals with difficulties are currently employed in only 5-6% of U.S. STEM jobs. However, with the increased focus on technology to promote learning in students with difficulties, this number will hopefully begin to rise.

Traditionally, STEM education has been based largely on expository reading, which is difficult for many students with learning disorders. With the use of assistive technology tools such as SLTR (Span Limiting Tactile Reinforcement) on mobile devices in classrooms, students with learning difficulties are overcoming this challenge. Beyond that, the presence of technology that involves accelerated mathematic skills—like 3D printers—in the classroom is organically driving an interest in math and engineering fields. The ability to succeed through hands-on learning with these tools promotes an overall interest in the fields the technology correlates to.

Though I struggled through my education experience—in both school and university—I found inspiration in my work with technology. For me, it was beyond an educational aid—my success in college was largely due to grants I received for computers to help with my studies. But the real benefit that technology provided was the confidence to know that someday I could have a thriving career.

Echoing my experience, the outlook of the general public and the education system on children with learning difficulties has vastly changed. Day after day, difficulties such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADD, and ADHD are not viewed as roadblocks to a successful future, but as manageable obstacles that require different learning approaches.

I found a passion with 3D printing, and was able to build a successful and innovative company because I was able to be creative with technology. As most technology tools are connected to STEM industries, their presence in the classroom, especially among students with learning difficulties, helps support interest in these fields, just as it did for me.

Chris Elsworthy is the CEO of CEL, makers of the Robox 3D Printer.

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