By Christopher Waide
Oct. 15, 2019
For many anatomy students, using sets of bones can be an invaluable study aid, especially when preparing for an upcoming test. Sets of bones can be purchased from Amazon with most having a price-tag of one to two-hundred dollars. While two-hundred dollars is hardly the most expensive investment a college student ever made in their education, many students simply cannot afford to purchase them. Attempting to “fill a void” and improve accessibility for students, Professor Gary Glaser acquired a grant to purchase a 3D printer and began manufacturing sets of bones for students to borrow from the college’s Alfred C. O’Connell Library. The sets of bones are loaned for five days at a time.
Professor Glaser started printing the bones last year and went full steam in the spring. There are currently nine sets of bones at the library and as of October 3rd, the waiting list was eleven students long. Many students coordinate with each other so they can pick up a set as soon as it gets returned. When I spoke with Professor Glaser, the 3D printer was printing a bone for another set.
3D printers use a small nozzle to dispense molten plastic, they print one layer, wait for the plastic to dry, and print another. They are available on Amazon with prices ranging from just over a hundred dollars to nearly 12,000. You then have the added cost of the plastic filament used by the machine.
The printer on campus cost around five hundred dollars. “It’s nice and open, so you can kind of tinker with it a little and modify things, make it really work for what you need,” Glaser said. The goal was to get as efficient a machine, for as low of a cost, as possible.
“We have gotten some pretty good feedback from the students,” Professor Glaser said. “They enjoy being able to study on their own time, how it’s really helping them put the three-dimensional aspect to it because when you study from a book, you know, you get a picture of the front, picture of the back, but when you start getting the real bones in hand, you start to see how it all comes together.” He says the worst feedback they’ve received is that there are always little lines left by the 3D printer.
“It’s kind of hard to measure the actual impact because you don’t really know exactly who gets (the bones) and who doesn’t. I can’t ask ‘did you get the bones?’, ‘did you not get the bones?’, but usually students you can see in the class, they’ll be talking about how this is helping.”
“It definitely gives them a confidence boost because they’ve had hands on.” Professor Glaser said it also helps them turn theory into practicality. But, as Professor Glaser said, it wasn’t an easy thing to start with. It was trial and error in the beginning.
“These actually came from scans of real bones, so you gotta figure how you can actually scan a print so they can actually work in the machine. It’s one of those catches, you can’t just simply say ‘oh there’s a formula here, lets download it.’”
A bone takes about six hours to print. Bones include the skull, coxal, humerus, ulna, radius, scapula, femur, tibia, feet, and vertebrae. This doesn’t cover everything learned in the class, but Professor Glaser said it covers about ninety percent. He said the one area students struggle with most is mixing up the names for the coxal and scapula and mixing the names for the femur and humerus.
“This way sort of covers the basis of whatever they’re working on, trying to figure out if they can have the aspect.” He is currently working on his tenth set of bones. “Wrapping up, we still have about fifteen sets to match the fifteen skulls they have down at the library.” And of course, having more sets will decrease the amount of time students spend waiting for the bones to become available.
When asked if there was anything he would do differently if he could, Professor Glaser said “if space permitted, print them full size instead of three-quarter size, but it’s a space issue and a material issue, I mean, you can only go through so much plastic material.” Not a major concern since the bones seem to do an excellent job of getting the information across.
“But otherwise, it’s been working out pretty well. I can’t complain. There’s been good feedback from students, and they seem to be popular, so it’s working.”