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New way to create 3-D models has computer, education fields buzzing


By Judy Berthiaume

A new computer programming language for creating 3-D models is generating a lot of buzz in computer science and education circles.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire assistant professor of computer science who created Madeup — a program that allows people to code shapes and print them as 3-D models — is a tad surprised but very encouraged by the positive response to his project, as well as the financial support it's receiving through the crowd-sourced funding it's getting on Kickstarter.com.

As its name suggests, Madeup is a programming language for making things up, says its creator Dr. Chris Johnson. As users navigate 3-D space to generate printable shapes, the language teaches them computation from a first-person perspective, and helps them learn to integrate technology back into the non-virtual world, Johnson says, noting that models built in Madeup can be sent directly to 3-D printers. 

The innovative project received instant support from many on Kickstarter.com. In less than a week, more than 50 friends and strangers supported Johnson's Madeup project through his Kickstarter funding request. 

The Madeup programming language is gaining support and attention from computer science, art and mathematics teachers, as well as people who simply like to make cool things using 3-D shapes.

Response on Kickstarter was so strong so quickly that Johnson increased his funding goal from $2,500 to $4,000, an increase that will help him create a desktop version of the program so it will meet the needs of even more users, Johnson says. 

Johnson plans to make Madeup available in early 2016, with the desktop version completed by summer of 2016. 

Dr. Chris Johnson took a few minutes to talk about his Madeup project, its potential uses and its innovative funding source.

How would you explain Madeup to people outside of the computer science world? 

Madeup can be viewed a couple of ways. One might see it as a tool for generating printable 3D models. Others might see it as a sandbox for exploring the ideas of math and computation. It's really both. Users of Madeup walk through 3D space, tracing out the skeletons or cross sections of 3D objects using precise mathematical commands.

For instance, a circle can be described as a forward step followed by a one degree turn, and all this repeated 360 times. Through some other commands, the user expands this path into a solid model. We generate a coin from the circle by stretching or extruding it away from itself. If we print our coin a hundred times, we can open our own Madeup bank.

What sparked this idea? 

My father was a mechanic and had a shop full of tools that could do pretty much anything. However, every time I tried to use them, my lack of practice and my fear of messing up caused me to mess up. I resigned myself to taking things apart. 

When I discovered computers, I became interested in creative generation again. I found that in writing code, it was safer and cheaper to experiment and make mistakes. However, my products were all virtual. My father's tools made real things. 

Soon after affordable 3D printers started coming out, I had dinner at some friends' house. They had a beautiful trivet on their dining room table, made of two interlocking wooden spirals. I wondered, "Could I make that?" With a jigsaw, probably not — at least not without a lot of practice. With a computer, I certainly could. I decided it was time to write a tool to help me express shapes.

How long have you been working on this project? 

Madeup has been in active development since 2013. However, the ideas for it have been brewing all my life. 

Who do you see using this and how? 

In education, we strive for tools that have "low floors" and "high ceilings." Because Madeup builds off of simple spatial movements like stepping and turning, I think Madeup is usable by folks as young as elementary school. On the other end, I've shared Madeup with a number of adults who are happy to make objects steeped in advanced mathematics. 

Personally, I'd love to see Madeup used to teach mathematics and computer science in open-ended and creative ways.

We are actively looking for ways to partner with schools, equip them with printers, and collaborate with teachers on integrating Madeup into their curriculum. 

Are UW-Eau Claire students involved in the project? 

Next year we are planning to work with math education majors and see how they might use it in their future classrooms. This past fall, I gave our first-semester computer science majors problems in Madeup each week. 

As it continues to grow, we hope that art and computer science majors can help us expand its usability and features.

You've introduced Madeup to some local groups. What's the reaction been to it?

My favorite response to Madeup was from a sixth-grade girl. We had just looked at how we might walk along a circle. She immediately wondered how we might generate a sphere. There are several ways to do this, and we talked about them. The simplest is to generate a semi-circle and then revolve it around its central axis. 

Another great response came from a local school administrator. We were presenting at the public library and she dropped in to see what we were doing. She had looked around the 3D printing craze and lamented that people were not really making anything themselves. Instead, they were downloading other people's models and printing them off, which somewhat defeats the creative potential of a 3D printer. She saw Madeup as a way to empower people to make their own creations.

Tell us about using Kickstarter to help fund the project

Some of my students suggested I put Madeup on Kickstarter. I'm not eager to market myself, but I am curious about the Internet and its power to form community.

From all my reading of history from Abraham Lincoln to Steve Jobs, I've seen that success requires both good ideas and investment from others. Of course, the prospect of covering a couple of mortgage payments during my off-contract months was also appealing. 

I published the Kickstarter project on the Friday before spring break. Less than seven days later, we met our goal. 

Former students, complete strangers and my loving mother all backed the project.

Seeing Madeup written about on blogs and social media by people I had never met before was a bewildering and humbling experience. 

Others' generosity has pushed me to invest more frequently in others' ideas.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Being at an institution like UW-Eau Claire has made Madeup possible.

Because of our focus on teaching, learning and serving our community, I've received a great deal of support from my colleagues, the provost, the Blugold Beginnings Office, our Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, and the UW Office of Professional and Instructional Development. 


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