Reaching for the Stars

3D Printer

Young Makers Build 3D Printed Telescopes in Franklin Club
You’ve got one school year, a bunch of high-schoolers interested in science and engineering, and a tech lab at your disposal. What do you do? Design and create custom telescopes, obviously.

Project Fikon got its start when Franklin Institute technology program developer Samantha Tumolo was approached by software engineers from Bentley Systems and Microsoft who had taken a 3-D printing class at the Franklin. “They proposed the idea of making these DIY telescopes using digital fabrication technology,” she says. “So we met and planned it out.”

The project is based on a similar one called Project Pikon. (The “FI” in “Fikon” refers to the Franklin Institute.)

“It’s an open source 3-D-printed telescope that’s powered by Raspberry Pi, which is a low cost, single board computer the size of a credit card,” Tumolo explains. “We decided we wanted to make it our own and customize some of the parts to improve them. So we developed a program for eight kids and offered it to students from within the Franklin Institute’s youth programs.”

Omar Swidan, a junior from Central High School, is one of those students. He’s been involved in a group called STEM Scholars at the Franklin for three years. When he heard about the new project, he was immediately intrigued.

“I was very interested since I’ve always had a passion for design and astronomy and engineering, so I applied,” he says. He was accepted, as were seven other high-schoolers. They’ve been meeting once a week since November to work on the project.

“For the past couple of months we’ve been working on this telescope, which is 3-D printed and uses disruptive technologies, like Raspberry Pi and 3-D printing,” Omar, 17, explains. “The whole idea of it being 3-D printed is to allow for rapid prototyping for users. People are starting to move toward 3-D printing as a way to mass produce because it’s so efficient as a way to create materials and you can design it to fit your needs exactly. It’s also very cost efficient.”

“We’ve designed everything from the mirror mount to the actual structure that holds the Raspberry Pi and its camera,” he says.

Building a telescope isn’t the only thing the students learned, Tumolo explains. “The whole project is about the telescope but we’ve been doing all sorts of mini workshops within it. We do different types of 3-D modeling, learning how to code and program things. We worked with the Raspberry Pi, we worked with Makey Makeys, we worked with Arduino. We did a lot of skills-based learning first.”

For Omar, the project had another level. He decided to enter it into science competitions, which meant he had to speed up his work—which in turn meant working on it on the weekends. His efforts paid off: He won first place in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science competition and third in the George Washington Carver Science Fair, the largest of its kind in the country.

“Omar is a really ambitious kid. He’s unbelievable,” Tumolo says. “He was the first one to really push the Raspberry Pi thing. It’s like a minicomputer and we’re using a module that allows you to photograph the planets, too. There’s a little camera module that attaches to it. He took the initiative and got the whole thing programmed. He was the first one to do it.”

The detailed journal that Omar kept on the project has even caught the attention of a crew producing a short documentary on Project Fikon for the Philadelphia school district. It’s being used as a narrative element.

What’s Next?
“The last step is to sync everything to the cloud,” Tumolo says. “Each kid is building their own telescope and we want to program the Raspberry Pi to have the cloud ability so the kids can take photos and send them to each other.”

Once the telescopes are complete, Tumolo hopes to use Project Fikon to get more kids interested in science.

“Over the summer I’d like to include an outreach component. Have the students bring them into the city, take them to summer camps or schools, and have local kids use the cameras to take photos and then print out their photos,” she says.

Omar will be a senior next year, and he’s already got his eye on college. “Right now I am interested in software design and computer engineering. I’d like to work for a big tech company like Apple or Google and help create some of their future technologies.”

And the Project Fikon group will continue next year, with a new project. “I call it a club now,” Omar says. “We’re making it into a design club.”

Tumolo hopes to partner with Philadelphia maker space application lab NextFab for the next project. “We want to maybe build a gigantic eight-person kinetic bike sculpture. We’ll see.”

Whatever the project ends up being, Omar is keen. “I see a lot of potential in this club. The sky’s the limit.”