“Hey Dad, can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”


It all started with my father-in-law sending along a mummified skeleton to my son, Lowell. We were all curious about what the animal may have been, and pitched initial ideas for figuring out how to identify it. A quick image search for squirrels and chipmunks did not yield any clear answers.

At my wife’s suggestion we reached out to the Anthropology Department here at VCU for some possible assistance in faunal identification. Dr. Bernard Means, who directs the Virtual Curation Lab (VCL) here, was both supportive and enthusiastic of my son’s exploration and invited him to the lab. It was a wonderful learning experience, comparing sample skeletons, examining additional artifacts, doing some hypothesis testing and getting an introduction to 3D scanning and printing. The specimen even garnered the attention of Dr. Elizabeth Moore of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) who was a visitor to the VCL. The skeleton was eventually positively identified as a juvenile opossum…very cool. Dr. Means expressed interest in keeping the specimen, and offered to print a scanned copy of the opossum for Lowell.

“Print a copy?” Lowell remarked…he was more than willing to let Dr. Means keep the actual skeleton…and the thought of a copy was pretty intriguing for him, and me as well.

This idea of 3D printing is something I’ve had to warm-up to over the past several years. When I initially heard of the technology a few years ago I admit I did not readily see some of the possibilities for education. But seeing this through my son’s eyes has totally changed my perspective. He has now had an experience where his “real-life” opossum skeleton, could be scanned and reproduced by a 3D printer…something I never even considered within the realm of reason. This is now a baseline perspective for my son. Mummified juvenile opossum.

He emerged with the idea that anything could be printed. This is a rather profound state of affairs for a 9 year old boy. Not only does he have the view that these “real-life” things can be printed, but that things he imagines and creates virtually could also be printed. Real can be virtual and virtual can be real. This realization completely blew the doors open for him. It is this sense of possibility, of imagining things and having the perspective and confidence that you can actually make it in real life with a 3D printer was a transformative moment for Lowell and I. I think this sense of possibility, creativity and imagination holds some profound promise for education and learning in the digital age as well. A few days ago he was showing me a recent creation he made in Minecraft. His imagination and creativity in this environment never ceases to amaze me, and this day was no different. He had made what he described as a kind of a flying fortress…complete with an enclosed garden and living space. “Very cool” I said…to which he responded…”can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”

It is a profoundly different world…


6 thoughts on ““Hey Dad, can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”

  1. Thanks for the great feedback. We’ve had fun with printing the mummy. We have printed three so far, including the two we gave to Lowell. The fidelity of the print of this complex item is pretty amazing compared to the original!

  2. That’s impressive on all fronts. It is amazing all the cool stuff going on in the world and VCU in particular.

    We found an non-mummified possum recently. It would not have been as warmly received at the lab. Not having any dermestid beetles I’m waiting to see how the local cleaners do before bringing it home.

  3. The possum mummy lives on! A 3D print will be making an appearance in an exhibit this fall at VMNH. If you have no objections, I’ll mention Lowell’s name in the object label.

  4. @Elizabeth Glad to hear the mummy lives on! I think it would be great to include mention of Lowell’s name in the object label…Thanks so much for touching base about that.

  5. Jeff,

    It’s exciting to see an evolutionary step documented! For so many reasons, humanity in 2020 will be a different creature than 1980. We are, right now, in the middle of a social-evolutionary forking. Your son natively sees the world as an intrinsically malleable space. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to cultivate this mindset, and will never gain the facility with it that your son already has.

    I need to write this up on my blog eventually, but we are seeing a conscious dismantling of (in certain domains) cognitive perception, at a social level. Growing up pre-internet, I still struggle against deeply-held paradigmatic views that I learned. I think, at least for me, that the default assumption used to be that things stay pretty much the same throughout a lifetime, with some incremental change. (Not to take away from the dramatic change experienced by those who experienced most of the 20th century). Telephone charges might be getting cheaper, housework might be getting easier, but the fabric of society was largely unchallenged.

    Nowadays, the fundamental assumptions of society are under sustained attack. Technology has changed the way we relate with ourselves and one another. Tasks that used to absolutely require government action no longer do. We can self- and spontaneously organize as never before. And now, we can create as never before.

    Generationally, I (we) are Moses. We have long bent our thought and action towards achieving the promised land, we may even have shown the way. But before it can be reached, we must first pass away. Humanity has always been transhuman – that may even be the defining trait of humanity – but this next generation will be, in a way never before seen posthuman.

    ad futuro!

  6. @dansurgent “Your son natively sees the world as an intrinsically malleable space.” Blew me away when I realized he saw this…profound to say the least.

    Thanks for commenting!

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