In collaboration with The Methodology Lab at the Preston Smith Library and TTUHSC Medical Education Department, we answered this question in two ways. First, by creating and integrating a 3D printing course into the 4th year school of medicine curriculum. Second, by testing the effectiveness of incorporating customized 3D-printed heart models into undergraduate medical education practices. On the surface, this ‘what is the point’ question seems straightforward, but this question is burdened with the negative assumption that there is little to be gained from a 3D printed model generated in a library setting. With this bad reputation, what is a heart-model to do? In many ways, our heart has earned this reputation. Our 3D-printed model, like its cousin, the art object, is created for visual appreciation. Beyond that, our model is without demonstrable function, unlike a hammer or a stethoscope. To add insult to injury, this lack of function is further highlighted by the unclear role a 3D printer plays outside a laboratory. In other words, what is the value of putting a 3D printer in a medical library if you are just going to make stuff to look at? When understood within these parameters, our 3D printed heart, which doesn’t do much of anything, must not have any instrumental value. Furthermore, the library setting for 3D printing must be inappropriate. And yet it seems like our model and library ought to have some ascribed value and a function. Thus we answered our ‘what is the point’ question when we identified a functional role for our heart by using it as a customized visual aid in tandem with a 3D printing curricula to connect the medical faculty and students with a viable means for accessing 3D printing technology. What’s more, anatomical modeling with medical imaging and a curriculum based framework for integrating and disseminating 3D-printing practices can be used in a wide range of educational and professional settings. In addition, there is potential for interdisciplinary collaborations between students, faculty and professionals working within a wide range of traditions like the arts, digital media, medicine, and bio-medical engineering.
When social distancing went from a suggestion to an imperative, we faced a new set of challenges. From our kitchen tables and living room couches, we figured out how to conduct meetings or attend lectures. In short life went on, but now, just online. However, as face-to-face interaction was replaced with screen-to-screen interfacing, one of our teaching faculty had a more complicated problem: How to teach students to set an arm in a cast within a virtual setting. Her solution? Mail each student a 3D-printed arm model and organize a virtual workshop to teach the techniques of applying a short arm cast. While still sequestered in our homes, my staff and I had three weeks to design, print, and assemble twenty-one arm models to ship to the homes of third-year undergraduate medical students. A piece of cake, right? Actually, it was. Here, 3D-printing can be understood as a methodology that supports and enhances learning in the virtual and in-person classroom. This project serves as an excellent example of how 3D printing can play a key role within everyday medical education, especially in times demanding rapid change. But more importantly, this project demonstrates the necessity of embracing programs that work with new technology. One must have an understanding of how the technology works, before it can be effectively implemented. In other words, new technology without an acquired skillset cannot be applied. Moreover, this skillset is sustained by not only an investment in resources, but also a mindset that embraces the ambiguous nature of 3D printing technology through interdisciplinary research and the interplay of trial and error. While the future is uncertain, we must be positive in the value of experimentation and research into practical applications with new technology.