If you’re reading this right now, there’s a very high chance that not only do you have consistent internet access, but the skills to navigate computers and other high-tech devices (it’s a 3D printing news site, after all). If that’s the case—consider yourself lucky. Despite technology and basic internet access becoming more affordable across the world, there is still a shockingly wide gap between the digital haves and have-nots, even within technology-rich countries like America and techno-centric cities like San Francisco.
In 2013, the Census Bureau estimated that tens of millions of American students didn’t have access to broadband internet, with the majority of those in question living in low-income districts consisting of higher minority and immigrant residents. And while the problem starts in early education, it’s likely to follow these students their entire lives—more than a mere ‘bonus,’ an increasing number of employers see tech skills as being crucial to success in today’s economy.
In an effort to get to the root of the problem and close that gap, cities across the country are launchingmobile-tech initiatives: school busses decked out with WiFi modems, Macbook computer labs, and even software, coding, robotics, and 3D printing workshops. They’re targeting city parks, churches, elementary and high schools, and the communities most at risk of being left behind, and those in charge are on a relentless mission to reach every single child possible before they’re done.
Examples include the San Francisco Public Library’s Techmobile, a computer lab and Wi-Fi hotspot with instructors on board to offer lessons in everything from basic computing to 3D printing. It was launched in March of this year. However the majority of these busses, in operation from Indiana to Rhode Island to Washington, D.C., focus on the staples: free internet and 4G mobile hot spots.
Perhaps the most famous is Estella Pyfrom’s ‘Brilliant Bus’, which has been acknowledged by CNN,Oprah Winfrey, and Microsoft, which featured the 78-year-old visionary and her Bus in a 2015 Super Bowl ad. However even with the movement gaining traction and demand on the rise, the technology is prohibitively expensive, and her dream of having a Brilliant Bus in every city is a long way away. Indeed, many of these initiatives are small-scale or still in their pilot phases, being funded either privately, as in Pyfrom’s case, or by public libraries or schools. Nevertheless, those in charge say the cost of leaving these kids behind is much, much higher, and that these busses are just the beginning of a wider movement.
“Anything that solves the problem for today is a good thing,” said Zach Leverenz, CEO of EveryoneOn, a nonproft working to close the digital divide. “But are [tech vans and buses] sustainable, cost-efficient, and scalable? No. The long-term view has to be about creating a right to affordable broadband access that is federally subsidized, like electricity and telephones were once subsidized.”
We have seen a huge push towards making 3D printing and other emerging technologies more accessible, with the development of kid-friendly apps, software programs, and 3D printers themselves. Some schools—from K-12 right up to college—are also beginning to bring 3D printing directly into the classroom, either as a tool to create science lab models, or by integrating 3D modeling and printing lessons into the actual curriculum. High profile 3D printing companies are also doing their part in breaking down the barriers to access: MakerBot has famously shifted their focus to educational outreach; XYZprinting partnered with Barnes & Noble during Educator Awareness Week; and Zortrax has committed to equipping 180 public institutions in Polandwith their M200 3D printers.
Each of these initiatives are equally important in giving young minds the knowledge and skills that they will need in the future, however true accessibility means equal access for all—regardless of their schools’ budget or family income. That’s why the Brilliant Bus and Techmobile education initiatives are so important: if you can’t bring the kids to 3D printers, bring the 3D printers to the kids. As Pyfrom proudly points out, her vision about more than a bus: “it’s a movement.”