With robotics canceled, Blue Crew builds 3-D printers for science labs

Blue Crew, the robotics team at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington has printed 3-D printers for every science lab at the school. Maria Howatt stands next to the printer she will use in physics classes. Submitted photo

FARMINGTON — Science labs at Mt. Blue High School will have 3-D printers to use thanks to the efforts of Blue Crew, the school’s robotic team.

Blue Crew was formed in 2015 when students lobbied to have a team comprised of students from the high school and Foster Career and Technical Education Center. The team competed in a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition (FRC) for the first time in Hartford, Connecticut in April 2016. The team was part of the winning alliance and won the Rookie All-Star award.

The Blue Crew mascot, R2-Blue2 was printed on a 3-D printer by the team and is fully functional with lights, sound and motion. It is the first 3-D printed droid in Maine and in FIRST Robotics. R2-Blue2 has attended state and regional events and has been seen at team fundraisers.

Since that first competition the team has competed at state and regional events annually, winning more awards. The most prestigious award at FRC events is the Chairman’s award which recognizes teams for their exemplary efforts in spreading the FIRST message.

In an email last week, Blue Crew advisor Richard Wilde said the 3-D printer project spans three years.

“It was started as a simple machine upgrade in my computer technology class to improve our $200 3-D printers which we assembled from Amazon,” he wrote. “We decided to keep the functional parts of the printer and redesigned the base and structure to provide a more stable machine. There were several models on Thingiverse but they didn’t exactly fit our application.”

The Mt. Blue Campus robotics team, Blue Crew has printed 3-D printers for each science lab at the school. Seen are some of the parts they printed during the project. Submitted photo

Construction concepts from some of them were used to construct the extruded aluminum frame, which greatly increased the printer’s stability, Wilde indicated.

“We designed our own five-part case to enclose all the electronics and support the superstructure,” he wrote. Several other adaptations were installed, he noted.

“We printed all the parts for the prototype on our old printers and then disassembled one of them to make the prototype,” Wilde wrote. “This printer, called the white printer, is in my room and stills prints beautifully three years later. Using our new prototype and our old printers, we then printed all the parts to convert our other three printers over to the new design.”

A 3-D printer printed by Blue Crew, the robotics team at Mt. Blue Campus in Farmington became the prototype for 3-D printers made for each science lab at the school. Submitted photo

Those were the printers used to print R2-Blue2.

“After the success of R2-Blue2, I was discussing some community service projects for the Blue Crew’s Chairman Award submission with (team mentors) Ron Holmes and Joel Pike,” Wilde wrote. “One of the ideas which really sparked my interest was putting a 3-D printer in every science lab at Mt. Blue Campus. Ron Holmes volunteered to fund half the cost and I put up the other half. We ordered the parts we couldn’t print and printed all the parts to make eight 3-D printers.

“Everything was all set for the team to assemble them right after Competition season last year,” he continued. “The expected delivery was to be by the end of June 2020. Then COVID happened.”

In March Regional School Unit 9 went to remote learning and FIRST canceled all competitions.

“Over the summer, I assembled 3 of the printers and Ron with his daughter Katie Holmes (2020 graduate and recipient of Wilde Foundation scholarship) assembled two,” Wilde wrote. “When school resumed I had my advanced students, Ryan Erb, Ryan Gray, and Orin Luce assemble two.”

Wilde noted more improvements to the printers were possible due to the delay in their delivery.

“The first printer was delivered to Maria Howatt a couple of weeks ago,” he wrote. “Doug Hodum and Chris Wyder will receive theirs next week. Blue Crew will provide all technical support and maintenance.”

In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 4, Howatt said Wilde had showed her how the printer could help with lessons on circular motion and torque for a physics class she is teaching.

“There are lots of different things for the students to choose from,” she said. “It will take some time to print them off, then I’ll run the lab.”

The printer opens up new possibilities for learning, Howatt said. A number of students breeze in and out of her classroom and some have expressed interest in the printer, she noted.

Howatt spoke of one student who is a hands-on learner.

“He’s excited, she said. “I’ll be using the printer to motivate anyone and everyone I can to enjoy learning.”

In an email yesterday, Hodum said he hasn’t figured out how to use the 3-D printer most effectively.

“To be honest, I am going to let my students drive the use of it,” he wrote. “I have some initial ideas, such as building cell models with it. I hope my students will be able to use it in projects that they develop. As I grow more comfortable with the capacities and uses for it, I am sure it will become a regular part of the experience that my students will have in my class.”

Because he was not entirely sure when it was arriving, Hodum noted he had not developed any specific plans.

“I am, however, incredibly grateful for Mr. Wilde’s class’ efforts to equip the science rooms with these amazing tools,” Hodum wrote.

In an email Wednesday, Wyder indicated he plans to use the 3-D printer to design and build protein structures and specialized cell models.

“In anatomy we may use the printer to print anatomical models. Also, we may do open-ended projects where students use their own design for a research project,” he wrote. “We are greatly appreciative of Rich and the robotics team building these printers for us!”

While the cost of the printers ended up being a little more than budgeted for (about $250 each), Wilde noted the end result was worth it.

“We were able to produce a printer that was easy to set up, easy to use, and capable of printing parts comparable to printers costing thousands,” he wrote. “One attribute of these printers which really makes them perfect for a school environment is the maintenance cost. The most expensive non-printed part costs only about $30. Any printed part can quickly be printed by any 3-D printer.

“By using them almost exclusively for the last couple of years, I can vouch for their dependability,” he noted. “The white printer has printed the equivalent of 365 days of continuous printing since its construction.”

Blue Crew currently has about 15 team members. They will be participating in the At-Home Competition with FIRST which consists of several individual competitions in shooting, maneuvering, and speed trials using the robot built for last year’s competition season.

“As a special project to go through the design and build process for our new students, the team is working on a Root Beer Float robot to make the perfect root beer float – untouched by human hands,” Wilde noted. “We hope to display it at summer festivals. The team continues to offer CAD (computer-aided design) and programming classes to its members in preparation for a return to normalcy next year.”

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Since that first competition the team has competed at state and regional events annually, winning more awards. The most prestigious award at FRC events is the Chairman’s award which recognizes teams for their exemplary efforts in spreading the FIRST message.


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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