At the University of South Florida, biomedical engineering students can 3-D print an actual patient’s heart for diagnostics and testing. Paleontology students can take CT scans of fossils and 3-D print replicas of them to study different parts of anatomy and composition of bones. Geology students can take laser scans of entire masses of land or specific areas like volcanoes and deserts.
The capabilities are made possible through the university’s Advanced Visualization Center (AVC), created in 2011. Dan Majchrzak, director of research computing at the university, says, “The mission of AVC is to ensure students have access to the cutting-edge technologies they are likely to see in their careers after they leave the university, or in their future research as they further their education.”
To support that mission, AVC recently invested in 3-D printers and rapid prototyping, a move Majchrzak and Advanced Visualization Specialist Howard Kaplan say was needed because of its obvious future impact on manufacturing, research and education - as well as society in general.
“We were already doing 2-D and stereoscopic 3-D visualization at the Center and this seemed like the next step toward a different way of gaining insights from data and research,” says Kaplan. “It is also very beneficial in research - even medical research - because producing a final product is often too expensive. It’s much easier to print from a computer model and see if it satisfies requirements before you move to full-scale production or the final piece necessary for your research.”
However, AVC facilities aren’t only for advanced research students - they are freely available to all students and faculty for pedagogical needs. “An open-door policy was very important to us,” says Majchrzak. “There are no hurdles to use the facilities and it’s a friction-free introduction to these technologies.”
Kaplan says visualization improves learning even when students are in introductory classes that are not affiliated with their major or field of study. He points to an introductory geology class where everyone created a visualization or 3-D print. “The understanding of the processes in geology was so much deeper because they were able to use these technologies rather than learning in a traditional way.”
But even more important than the technology, Majchrzak says, is the Center’s staff - including Kaplan, as well as Gilberto Jaimes and Matthew Wedebrock, who are both visualization assistants. “The group takes great care to help students develop skills and learn how to use the hardware and software,” Marjchrzak boasts.
Majchrzak says if AVC didn’t have the right people, the hardware wouldn’t be as beneficial - staff helps take the pressure off of faculty who have many other concerns and pressures on their time.
“We’re very student- and education-centered, but we’re also trying to encourage students to go beyond the technology and create new innovations using the technology,” says Kaplan. “We want them to not just experience the technology, but use it in their field to enhance what’s already there.”