Friday, May 25 2018 12:06

Life Lessons in Three Dimensions

Written by Diane Huskinson, Stroud Water Research Center

Unionville students, the Stroud Center and a retired teacher collaborate on 3-D teaching tools


Vince O’Donnell retired from Unionville High School five years ago, but he’s still, and likely will always be, a teacher. After a 45-year career teaching biology and only a few years into retirement, O’Donnell got the itch to return to what he loved.

And so O’Donnell joined Stroud Water Research Center as a part-time educator in 2016, just as Education Director Steve Kerlin began expanding the Stroud Center’s environmental education programs for students and teachers.


A Real-Life Project

Always looking for new ways to help students learn, O’Donnell had an idea: “We couldn’t find any three-dimensional models of the critters that live in streams to use as a teaching tool, but a former colleague reminded me Unionville High School has 3-D printers.” O’Donnell reached out to the school’s tech ed department, and four of Steve Ortega’s engineering students volunteered for the project.

Bryan Denmark, a junior in Ortega’s computer integrated manufacturing class, said, “I wasn’t sure what I was getting into at first, but I was up for the challenge.” He soon realized it was a chance to apply skills he’d learned in class to a real-life project.

And a chance to learn new skills. “Most of the time, the parts we create in class are more along the lines of machine parts, brackets or fixtures, which tend to be more angular. The objects for this project have complex curves, layers and parts intersecting at angles the students haven’t dealt with before,” Ortega explained.

Denmark, who’s modeling a mayfly nymph, added, “I feel like this project has been a taste of what actual engineers do.”

O’Donnell continues to meet with the students to follow their progress, review mockups and provide feedback. At the start, he pointed them to resources such as and the WaterQuality App, one of the six tools at Students did their own research to learn how the models should look, and each student accepted one macroinvertebrate to model in addition to a crayfish.

Junior Sebastian Graper said, “Working on the water penny larva, I spent what must have been hours on getting the back curved to mirror the actual bug.”

It’s a long process, and the project will likely continue into the next school year.


Integrating Art and Science

Because it takes five to eight hours to print one model, the printers were set to run overnight, and the mockups are ready when the students arrive at school the next morning.

“Once I saw the mockups, I thought—why not get the art department involved, too? Then you’ve got integration between the departments in the school, which is always encouraged,” said O’Donnell. This approach mirrors how scientists and educators at the Stroud Center work, across disciplines and inspired by the natural world as well as art. The Stroud Center’s founders firmly believed in integrating art and science.

Three of Faith Dilworth’s art students jumped at the chance to add real-life colors and textures to the 3-D models. “It’s a perfect marriage of science, technology and fine art,” Dilworth said. “The students were excited not only because their peers had actually created the models, but their painted surface application would help other students learn about the science of these organisms through the Stroud Center’s education programs.”

It’s also an opportunity, Dilworth explained, for the students to see what it’s like to create a product that meets the needs of a client, much like a professional artist does.

Sophomore Isabelle LeCloux, who’s creating the cranefly larva model, said, “It’s so cool to see the final product once the models have been painted. While the models do look like the creatures they are, the art students are able to breathe life into them.”

Junior Sid Panchanadam, stonefly modeler, also enjoyed the interdisciplinary aspect: “Working with people from other departments is refreshing. When making models, I have to consider the needs and abilities of the art department. And it’s nice to know they’re going to take my model and make something neither of us could make on our own.”

Scientists and educators know well that unexpected challenges are opportunities for creative problem-solving. One art student discovered that lesson when she caught her bracelet on a crayfish model’s antenna, causing it to break off. “She was devastated,” said O’Donnell, “so I told her, ‘Don’t worry about it. Sometimes when crayfish spar in the wild, an antenna will snap off. Now we can lay that antenna in the gravel by the crayfish so other students can learn more about crayfish behavior.’”


Life Lessons

By creating these teaching tools about freshwater ecosystems, the Unionville students in this project developed their own curiosity about their outdoor environment. Senior art student Hannah Fioravanti said, “I’ve always liked animals, but this experience makes me want to see the animals in person.”

“This project has caused me to be more mindful of the environment around me,” added senior Margaret Clisham.

LeCloux and Panchanadam had similar insights. “Before joining this project, I knew there were a lot of little critters in streams, but I don’t think I realized the variety that existed,” said LeCloux. Panchanadam added, “While I’ve known about the important efforts of organizations like Stroud, working on this project exposed me to the complexity of life in the streams and the importance of educating people on the environment.”

Big life lessons.


Stroud Water Research Center, based in Avondale, advances global freshwater research, environmental education and watershed restoration. The nonprofit organization helps everyone make informed decisions that affect water quality and availability around the world. To make a gift in support of its education programs, go to


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