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Can 3D-printed schools boost education access?

September 07, 2022
topics: Innovation
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Madagascar
tags: 3D printing, Africa, education, Sustainable Development, technology

If Africa's first 3D-printed school is any indication, the technology may prove to be a game-changer in boosting education access across the continent and beyond.

The world over, access to education remains a challenge - with more than 72 million children unable to attend primary school and roughly 759 million adults remaining illiterate. Among the contributors to this crisis is lack of infrastructure, such as classrooms to accommodate students.

But technological innovations can, evidently, provide sustainable solutions and bridge such gaps. 

leveraging 3D printing 

Thinking Huts is an NGO on a mission to increase global access to education by leveraging 3D printing to build schools in partnership with communities in the Global South.

Within the education sector, the organisation is involved in the construction and development of schools. It brings together students, teachers, communities, partners and humanitarian-driven technology to achieve its vision.

Maggie Grout, founder and CEO of Thinking Huts, spoke to FairPlanet about the inspiration behind the 3D schools’ concept, what the NGO hopes to achieve and the role of such innovations in increasing global access to education.

FairPlanet: Tell us briefly about your initiative. What inspired it and how does the process work? 

Maggie Grout: An architectural scale printer extrudes layers that set upon one another to form the walls from the ground up. While the walls are hollow, steel reinforcements ensure the structure is strong and safe. We have hybrid designs of 3D printed walls and locally sourced materials for the roof, door and windows.

Beehives inspired the concept for the symbolism of community and bringing people together to make the hive thrive. Donors pollinate the hive and the worker bees ensure the impact is carried out.

We completed Madagascar’s first 3D printed school in April 2022; it is the second school built this way in the world. We planted a bougainvillea flower to symbolise our promise growing stronger over time to increase access to education.

Do you intend to expand beyond Madagascar?

[Yes], Madagascar was the first and hopefully we will have the resources to scale to other communities globally.

What problems does Thinking Huts seek to address?

We are addressing the problems of overcrowding, long travel distances to the nearest school or there being no school to attend at all.

There are not enough schools, but with 3D printing we can fill this need in a fraction of the time while creating local jobs to further support innovation.

With awareness comes investment

At a time when access to education is a serious challenge, particularly for children in the Global South, what, in your opinion, is the source of the problem and how should it be tackled?

I believe that the problem is a lack of investment, and that largely stems from a lack of awareness. We need to shed more light on the challenges and humanise the problem through thoughtful storytelling that shows people the urgency and why they should care.

There are many issues in the world, but it is so crucial that we start addressing the root causes. Education is truly at the heart of it and how we will effectively tackle all the other troubles that the world faces.

Having been in the business of using additive manufacturing technologies to improve education access, what would you say is the space of technology in ensuring education for all?

Technology has the potential, but not many have the opportunities to experience it because there are obstacles ranging from location to socioeconomic financial feasibility. Additive manufacturing can bridge this gap to ensure education is within reach.

Where you are born and where you live should not limit your whole life's trajectory.

What other opportunities can additive manufacturing technologies provide to people in developing countries?

I think that beyond schools, developing countries could utilise additive manufacturing technologies on a large scale for housing, hospital clinics, refugee shelter or to quickly rebuild if there are natural disasters.

In [the medical field], [additive manufacturing] technology on a smaller desktop printer scale could create limbs, organ replicas for surgery tests and parts for devices.

What are some of the main challenges you've been facing doing this work?

I think the toughest thing is finding supporters who will sustain growth to support overhead and scale impact, which is a shared obstacle for many nonprofits - especially so for international causes, since the problems are often difficult to visualise and relate to for many people in developed economies.

It is a tough line of work and a lot of sacrifices happen behind the scenes, which is often not recognised. 

How sustainable are innovations like 3D printed schools in improving education access?

I think once economies of scale are reached and there is significant investment, innovations such as 3D schools are sustainable in improving education access and can bring together all the partners to make it a long term success.

On the environmental sustainability side, while cement is a large polluter in the construction industry, 3D printing allows for a reduction of waste creation and limitation of carbon emissions.

As research and development furthers, it would be ideal to locally source all the materials involved, particularly for the wall mixtures based on region or country.

What are your plans moving forward?

Honeycomb campuses that serve primary and secondary students ages 4-16 are next on the horizon. We are in the project planning and fundraising stage for our honeycomb campus to be built on the west coast of Madagascar to serve 3 villages.

By printing multiple Huts in one construction period, we plan to reduce costs and achieve economies of scale.

Long term, we will create 3D technician training programs to grow native teams and want to incorporate solar power for our Huts, as well as internet access if alternatives such as StarLink enable access to more areas where our schools could be connected. 

Finally, what inspires you to continue on this journey?

I am inspired by the thoughtfulness and genuine care of people. By my volunteers who give their time to see this shared vision succeed. By people who live without expecting anything in return and who want to make a difference in the world.

Image by BOTTO Friddet. 

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Madagascar
Maggie Grout.
Maggie Grout.
© Geoffrey Gaspard
\'We have hybrid designs of 3D printed walls and locally sourced materials for the roof, door and windows.\'
"We have hybrid designs of 3D printed walls and locally sourced materials for the roof, door and windows."
© Andrey Niaina
The Madagascar school serves as a blueprint the NGO intends to replicate in other countries.
The Madagascar school serves as a blueprint the NGO intends to replicate in other countries.
© Thinking Huts
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