3D-printed Hominoid skulls for Biology

Due to a federal government MakerSpace grant, the school has been able to purchase an UPBox 3D printer to replace our much more primitive model.  I had previously tried to 3D print a Homo sapiens skull for Biology class, hoping to build a collection of Hominoid skulls for comparison of morphological features. After several failures, due to poor calibration and lack of platform adhesion, I abandoned my trials. I resigned myself to the fact I would need to borrow the skulls or rely on 2D images and a Polycom video with GTAC to allow my students to investigate hominin evolution.

After some more calibration problems and trouble shooting, we were able to get the new UPBox up and running, and my first 3D print was a half-size model of a Homo sapiens skull. It took about five hours in total, but I was really pleased with the fine texture and smooth finish. Although it is not a hollow model to allow measurement of skull capacity, it has features that allow comparisons with other hominoid skulls, such as the position of the foramen magnum, sagittal keel, lack of eyebrow ridges and lack of canine teeth.

This was also an opportunity to teach my Year 7 Maths class about the concept of ratio. The 3D printer software allows you to import a file and adjust it, similar to how you would edit an image. By halving each of thex:y:z distances we are reducing the volume of the model to one-eighth of it’s original volume.

Although you can purchase fossil hominoid skull models, at $630 for seven half-size skulls (or $78 each) it is much cheaper to print your own. Here are some sites where you can find the STL files required. (STL stands for STereoLithography and is a file format native to CAD software created by 3D Systems. STL has several after-the-fact ‘backronyms’ such as “Standard Triangle Language” and “Standard Tessellation Language”.)

  • African Fossils is a site that allows users to go on a virtual tour of the laboratory and view the digital collection of human ancestors, African animals and stone-age tools. Many of the artefacts have 3D print files to download.
  • This Forbes article, “How to print your own 3D replicas of Homo naledi and other hominin fossils” has links to the African fossil site, but is perhaps easier to access, because it provides the genus and species name for the fossils, as well as the fossil-find code.
  • Thingiverse is a file sharing site where users post their 3D print files for others to download and modify. Thingiverse has a gorilla skull by 123D Catch for free download.
  • MyMiniFactory is another 3D printable object sharing platform, where designers share their downloadable files for free. MyMiniFactory also offers design challenges and competitions. For example, they have a chimpanzee skull available.

Our next projects with the 3D printer will be encouraging students to create their own designs. Anne Mirtschin will be working with her Year 9/10 Creative Computing students to design a 3D model of a character for a computer game. They may use the free software SketchUp or Blender. This task would also be applicable to Science: Biological Sciences – Design your own creature for a specific environment and explain the characteristics that make it well adapted to a particular habitat.

What sites do you find useful for 3D printing? How have you used 3D printers to engage students in the Victorian Curriculum?

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