3-D Test prints produced at the CTE in Clovis North High School. Darden The school has partnered with Darden Architects to design and produce 3-D models, and teach high school students the science of 3-D printing. Photo contributed by Darden Architects.
Written by Frank Lopez
For students at a new school — especially a high school with hundreds of classrooms and dozens of buildings and hallways — navigating an unfamiliar campus can be a challenge.
For a visually impaired student, that challenge could be even greater.
Professionals from Fresno-based Darden Architects have stepped up to assist visually impaired students at Clovis North High School with help from school staff and a plastics company.
Together, the team is in the process of designing and printing 3-D model maps of the Clovis North High School campus to help visually impaired students get familiar with a physical representation of the school to navigate the grounds better.
“First of all, it helps them more quickly access the new environments. Navigation improves if you can understand the layouts of a building. To be able to feel something in a model—a hallway—helps to more efficiently navigate through a building,” said Karen Loomis, orientation and mobility specialist at Clovis Unified School District.
The number of visually impaired students in the Clovis Unified district could vary from semester to semester and year to year, Loomis said. Some students also have different levels of visual impairment and have very different needs.
Loomis said that they have used tactile maps before, but the issue with maps using Braille is that the writing system takes up a lot of space. This is the first time the school is using 3-D printed technology for architectural models.
These 3-D maps will go beyond use for just visually impaired students, said Loomis, but also for students in functional skills classes that might not be able to envision projects in 2-D and need 3-D representation to better understand.
Architectural features such as open-air ceilings for buildings can let visually impaired students they are in a different area with a change of acoustics and air pressure.
While this new technique is catching on in the architectural world, this is the first time a school in the Central Valley is utilizing it.
Phil Dietz, marketing manager at Darden, said that traditionally, building architectural models are made out of balsa wood and take a long time to create. With computer programs such a Google Sketch-Up that show computer renderings of projects, the industry is moving away from models in general, but 3-D printing could bring them back.
“It gives us the ability to show scale and be able to touch and feel and understand what the building is going to look like on the site and how it’s going to be arranged adjacent to other buildings. This opportunity to create this plan and benefit these students is an added bonus for us to learn how to do that again,” Dietz said.
The design and construction of the models takes place in the Career Technical Education (CTE) building at the Clovis North campus.
Since the team at Darden designed the CTE building, Dietz said being able to see what happens in the classroom and working in that space provides Darden an opportunity to learn how to design and print more 3-D models and work with students.
Teacher Mary Allen, CTE software and systems development at Clovis North Education Center, said the plan to create a 3-D model of the campus started in 2019 with a Braille map of the campus they called “Getting A Feel”.
Darden and the school partnered with Precision Plastics Inc., a plastic fabrication company in Clovis, to help with the 3-D printing. Allen said that high school students have tried to print 3-D architectural models with the available equipment at the CTE building, but attempts were unsuccessful.
Through this partnership, Precision Plastics provides projects for students to 3-D print such as a “blank” — a small cylindrical container that POM Wonderful uses for their pomegranate seeds to set weights used in manufacturing lines.
“Our students get experience and get to help their clients for things they cannot do,” Allen said. “We have all the machines—we have routers and mills and bandsaws, we can manufacture it and we can mass produce it. It’s just a matter of time that the students have and how much time I have to oversee it.”
The cost for the 3-D printers available at the school range from $200 to $10,000.
Robert Reitz, an intern at Darden Architects and current student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, is a member of the team working on the high school project, along with Darden Design Professional Katie Tablada and Architectural Designer Andrew Valles.
Reitz said design and engineering students are versed in 3-D printing through their current studies, but that established architectural firms are set in their ways of traditional models and don’t have many people in the office that know the burgeoning technology.
“There is sort of a disconnect between the new technologies you experience in college and moving to the professional practice, so bringing that to Darden and potentially other films in the Central Valley is a great experience,” Reitz said.
Along with helping visually impaired students, 3-D models helps clients understand how a building will look before it’s built.
“Right now we are just giving them 2-D images — it’s all flat,” Tablada said. “With 3-D models, you can pick it up, look at it, see all the little details that you would miss in a picture. We want to be able to engage the client in all this because they can only see so much.”
There are no specific projects that can be disclosed at this time, but the intent is to eventually have students at the CTE center design models and buildings for school campuses.
Allen said that she is open to any local entities or experts that could lend their expertise in engineering, 3-D printing or other design and engineering disciplines.
Ideally, students at Clovis North could do work for other schools in the future, but since most of her time is already spent up with her students, she simply wouldn’t have time.”
“If this works, we are going to be guinea pigs. If this system works, we could do other high schools, but that’s not something that I would want to take on. It’s something that each high school should have on their own.”
But currently these projects give opportunities to students not available in many schools.
“The best part about this is the fact that we are doing this for Clovis North at Clovis North,” Tablada said. “It’s giving the students an opportunity to actually learn their campus. If this works out, and we are able to get this in other high schools, they could build their own campus.
“It makes more personal and peer driven, she added.