3D Printing in the Classroom: Outcomes and Reflections on a Slavic Course Experiment (2/2)

Cross-Posted on my personal blog. 

UVA’s Slavic Librarian, Kathleen Thompson, and Slavic Lecturer, Jill Martiniuk, conclude their two-part evaluation of the 3D printing assignment for Yuri Urbanovich’s ‘Understanding Russia’ course. Considering both student and professor feedback, Kathleen and Jill offer suggestions to continue and improve this interactive assignment for future courses:

Since this project was an experiment, some parts of it were bound to work better than others, and while we can say that this has generally been a positive experience for both students and instructors, both we and Prof. Urbanovich have several ideas on what could be improved for future iterations of a similar assignment.

Overall, we think that this experiment was a success. It achieved its initial goals of getting students to think differently about symbols and their power and use, and the reaction to the one particular object almost certainly would not have been so strong if the depiction of that particular concept had not been in 3D.  We base this conclusion on both instructor and student evaluations of both the course and the project, and the ways in which the project was integrated into the course.

Students were given two evaluation forms to fill out at the end of the semester: one was the standard online evaluation through UVaCollab, and the other was a written evaluation handed out during the final exam. Not surprisingly, participation in the written evaluation was stronger than the online evaluation; only 12 of the 35 students filled out the online evaluation, and only one of those mentioned the 3D project. That comment suggested more class time to discuss the project in the week leading to the final presentation. Overall, however, students rated the course as worthwhile (81% said that they “strongly agreed” with that sentiment, and 9% “agreed”), and felt that they had learned a great deal in the course (66% said that they “strongly agreed” with that sentiment, and 33% “agreed”).

We were more interested to see the written course evaluations because Prof. Urbanovich emphasized that students should mention the 3D projects as part of their evaluation. 31 of the 35 students submitted those written evaluations during the final exam! Of those, 17 mentioned the 3D project. Of the 17 that mentioned the 3D project, the average score for the course was 4.941 (out of 5); the overall average for the course was 4.548, so the evaluations that mentioned the project gave the course a higher rating than evaluations that did not. Course ratings remained high even among students who did not find the project very meaningful.

Common negative reactions touched upon one of our biggest concerns, which was the integration of the project into the course: “a bit irrelevant”; “seemed unnecessary”; and “it was interesting but maybe didn’t fit well with this course” were a few notes of feedback. Most responses were quite positive, with students citing the project’s ability to spur creative thinking about Russian identity as a plus: “It was good to see how my perspective of Russia changed over the course of [the project]”; “[It] provided a more open ended approach to my exploration and learning about Russia”; and “I liked it in terms of analyzing preconceived notions and then applying model to material learned throughout the semester” were a few notes of feedback in this case. A couple of students made suggestions for improving the project in the future, such as making the groups smaller and providing clearer expectations of the final presentation. Finally, one student offered this advice: “Keep the 3D project, we all love it!”

With this last note come two caveats: one, we realize that one student’s positive feedback about the project does not a collective opinion make. Two, these evaluations were written in the context of a final examination for which the professor was present, which, although anonymous, may not lend itself to the most honest criticism. Online evaluations are completely anonymous and not compulsory, so their efficacy as true measures of a group’s feeling about a course remains questionable.

What worked: Discussions generated by the objects were thought-provoking, and making the students’ work public compelled them to do a good job of selecting and justifying their objects. Having the students curate their own exhibit gave them ownership of the project. Not forcing them to discuss their objects every class session probably helped them not feel burned out by the project, too. Even the backlash from that one object was a valuable learning experience, as it gave students some insight on how symbols are perceived by certain groups of people, and how powerful even the smallest or most innocently-intended representations can be.

What didn’t work: The 3-minute presentation was supposed to be a soundbite, but the extra work created by having students record and re-record their presentations proved too cumbersome. General student reaction to the idea of a soundbite was negative, whereas reaction to a brief presentation was more positive (and, we think, more inclusive – it allows students to listen to one another in real time, rather than after the fact).

We had originally thought about having students curate an online exhibit of their objects to explore how (if at all) digital exhibits reflect meaning in ways different from physical exhibits, using the Tumblr platform. Student reaction to this idea was lukewarm at best; after setting up the Tumblr account for the class, we abandoned the idea partially due to this reaction, and partially because we could not assign any tangible pedagogical value to the blog. We’re still mulling over whether or not Tumblr is a viable pedagogical tool; it may be, but perhaps not for a project like this, where the 3D component of the exhibit is vital to understanding how perceptions of objects as symbols change according to the medium.

Curating a second exhibit in Alderman Library was neither useful nor interesting to the students or to us, since they – and we – did not see any value in putting up another display in an area with light foot traffic in which attention is not directed at the space in which the display would have been.

Since this wasn’t our own class, it felt a little odd popping in to Prof. Urbanovich’s class once a week, or every couple of weeks, to talk to students about project components and issues that arose along the way. We wonder if students took us, and the project, as seriously as they might have if Prof. Urbanovich had been the sole conductor of the experiment, because some students may have perceived that they were test subjects (for lack of a better term), even though we were careful to explain early on that this was an experimental project.

A few days after Part I of this blogpost went live, I (Kat) spoke to Prof. Urbanovich about his thoughts on the scholarly value of the project, and whether or not he would continue to include the project in future iterations of this course. He said that he would absolutely keep the project as part of the course, and suggested the following changes to it:

– A more detailed explanation of the goals and aims of the project, and more discussion of the groups’ presentations and final papers.

– In general, more in-class discussion of the symbols that students chose; Prof. Urbanovich noted that the most useful class meetings were the ones driven by student discussion, rather than instructor lecturing.

– Pursuant to that, a teaching assistant or “project leader” who would not only introduce the project and work with students to print the models, and guide them through the exhibit-building and presentations, but would also facilitate bi-weekly in-class discussions relating symbols to that week’s topics.

– Possibly leave room for comparison of U.S. and Russian symbols expressing a particular idea, and greater room for discussion of how Russians symbolize the U.S.

– More discussion of the various meanings conveyed by 2D symbols, as opposed to 3D symbols.

One major change that Prof. Urbanovich suggested would be to delay the initial printing of 3D objects in favor of showing symbols that already exist in Russia, and asking students to discuss their perceptions of those symbols. He gave the example of the Allies Monument that stands in Moscow’s Victory Park. He finds that students are usually shocked by the idea of a monument portraying soldiers from France, the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R. as allies, because they do not immediately make the connection between them as the group united against Hitler in World War II. Even more surprising to students is the fact that this monument was erected in 2005, some sixty years after the war ended!

Giving students an idea of what symbols already exist, and then asking them to devise their own, might help give students new theoretical approaches to inform their choices, and lend increased significance to their cultural interactions.

Finally, concerning the scholarly value of such a project, Prof. Urbanovich said that this project was very timely given the current tenuous state of U.S.-Russian relations, which he does not necessarily foresee stabilizing in the near future. For that reason alone, this project is worthwhile, because he has repeatedly and enthusiastically supported the facilitation of open discussion about the ways in which cultures perceive one another as a way of coming to a mutual understanding. Those who might question the need for a 3D project when a 2D project might suffice need only examine what happened when the bust of Stalin was printed – in a sense, “came to life” – to understand that such a project has fairly deep implications indeed.  

For now, we continue to process our thoughts on this project, and will work to improve its structure and implementation for a more robust classroom experience. We will be participating in a roundtable, “Digital Humanities In and Out of the Classroom” at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., in November 2016 to discuss this project with Slavic scholars working in the digital realm. We are also developing a 2-week undergraduate course called “Making a Digital Museum”, using online museum collections as a basis for creation of physical and virtual Russian-culture exhibit. We hope to tie this course to the return of the Fabergé eggs to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va., in late October, for which the museum is preparing a renovated and expanded exhibit space. 

Jennifer is a 2015-2016 Makerspace Consultant and a 2014-2015 Praxis Fellow. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture and her research focuses on medieval architecture in Norse territories of NW Europe.

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