Being a physics professor isn’t all lectures, SMARTboards and ivory towers.

In fact, Dr. Steven Sahyun is using his knowledge of physics, and of the new field of 3D printing, to help students with visual disabilities understand basic concepts of physics through tactile models they can manipulate.

Sahyun served as keynote speaker at Saturday’s Fort Atkinson Regional Science Fair. His half-hour talk on the applications of 3D printing in physics education came just before the awards ceremony, at which the top entrants in numerous age categories and in a couple of special areas were lauded.

Sahyun, who also serves as a science fair organizer, judge and chief fundraiser, was available throughout the event Saturday, demonstrating how to use 3D ink from a pen that works a little like a glue gun, but with melted plastic inside. He guided children of all ages in how to create structures using this pen, the easiest way being to build just one facet of a structure at a time, then join the edges together once the sides were complete.

When it came time for his speech, he focused in on 3D printing, which works similarly, except with a computer guiding the layering of plastic.

An associate professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Sahyun has focused in on physics education research (PER) with an emphasis on access for students with visual disabilities. PER looks at how students learn and understand physics and science, and Sahyun has extended this to seek methods for providing access to science to students with visual disabilities.

Sahyun started working at UW-Whitewater in 2001. He has taught a wide range of physics courses and currently is teaching Physics for Elementary Teachers, as well as Optics.

He received his doctorate from Oregon State University, where he worked on creating and comparing auditory graphs (portraying data using sound) and helped develop a high-resolution Braille graphics printer now being produced by ViewPlus Technologies.

Among his other creations is the “Anatomy of a Light Bulb” teaching aid, produced by Nasco. This large replica of a lightbulb helps students more easily understand basic circuits.

Sahyun’s current research focuses on developing 3D objects to help students learn about physics concepts. He started working on 3D printing objects last year and realized that many objects or diagrams pictured in textbooks could be turned into physical objects to help students learn.

He is working on making these educational objects universally accessible by including tactile indicators and braille lettering on the printed objects so students with visual disabilities can better learn physics.

He also has shared the resources he has created with the general public through his website, through which teachers or others trying to make physics more accessible can download and print physics learning objects.

The website is located at

When introduced, Sahyun entertained attendees briefly with some 3-D objects not printed off a printer: his juggling pins.

Swiftly, he moved into his area of research, talking about 3D printing on a basic level so everyone in the audience could understand.

He likened 3D printing to using a glue gun. The glue gun contains a heating element that heats up the glue, which comes out liquid and swiftly hardens to secure whatever you want to fasten.

Likewise, a 3D pen has a hot element, and it is loaded with hard strings of plastic that become soft inside and then firm up as soon as they’re out of the pen.

With a 3D printer, the computer controls where the “pen” is “writing.” It lays down one layer at a time, waiting to ensure that the previous layer has hardened before laying down the next layer.

There are three steps to creating a 3D printed item: design, slice and print.

Some programs allow people to draw the item and the printer creates it, while others require code to be typed in telling the computer exactly what shape and dimensions are needed, then allowing the coder to manipulate that shape.

The computer program creates a 3-D model you can view from different angles.

Then comes the slicing program, which tells the printer how to make the designed object, layer by layer.

It also involves choosing the best path for the printer “ink” to go, including some air pockets so the object is not completely solid.

The third step is printing. Sahyun showed a movie he had taken of his 3D printer completing one of the objects he had designed, a 3D model of the classic educational “bell curve,” with cuts in the model showing where the first, second, third and fourth standard deviations would fall.

Sahyun also uses his 3D printer to create labels in Braille.

Finally, he creates objects themselves to help students learn physics concepts. These include an accessible Braille label maker, XYZ and IJK coordinate axis models, the UW-Whitewater central campus map in tactile form, wave pattern comparisons, diffraction patterns, a gravitational potential well model, a balance, masses for balance level, a pulley, a model of a carbon 60 “Buckyball” molecule, and much more.

He also has created a Braille slate to accommodate not just standard six-dot Braille, but also for the scientific 8-dot Braille notation.

“This helps students write scientific notations in a manner convenient to them,” Sahyun said.

The Braille slate includes a stylus to punch through the paper, and the bottom has divits. Push the two sides together and it creates marks to create letters, numbers or other notations.

Sahyun’s printable protractor contains holes where a stylus can be used to punch holes in paper to indicate a certain angle.

All of the designs on Sahyun’s homepage are free to print out for educators or anyone else seeking ways to make the sciences more accessible via tactile means.

He also is working on a picture converter, which can convert any 2D illustration or diagram in a textbook into a printable tactile design.

Other objects he has created using his 3D printer include a cone that breaks down into different shapes, including circles, ellipses and parabolas; and a diagram of a goalball field (Goalball is a sport played at the School for the Blind, and this is a tactile display of how the field is laid out).

Asked about the cost of 3D printers, Sahyun said that they range from $300 to $30,000. The one he uses at UW-Whitewater cost $1,300 and was obtained by pooling resources and seeking grant funding.

One of the audience members asked Sahyun if it’s possible to use recycled plastic in the 3D printer. He said that researchers are working on ways to reuse the plastic, but for now, the recycled filament is not as strong as the original.M

After Sahyun’s talk, winning entries in the science fair were announced. Amy Lutzke, president of the science fair board, said they came from all around the area, with all of the Fort Atkinson public schools represented, and good participation from area parochial schools and Jefferson Middle School.

Awards went to the top six places in the age categories, plus the Friends of Rose Lake Award for the top natural science project, and three awards voted on that day by attendees at the science fair.

The Most Creative award went to Miles Ficenec for “How Many Balloons Would It Take To Lift Me Up?”

The Most Practical award was presented to Aaron Messler for “Can You Talk and Focus at the Same Time?,” which examined how people talking on cell phones performed on other tasks while they were chatting away (in general — badly), which he used to argue that people should put down the cell phones, particularly when driving.

The People’s Choice award for overall top project, voted on by attendees, went to Samantha Mallin for her “Raindrop Erosion” exhibit.

The Friends of Rose Lake gave its award to Analisa Boshart for her “Sparrows, Stay Out of my House” exhibit, which looked at the effect of clear-topped birdhouses on attracting bluebirds while driving competing sparrows to look elsewhere to make their homes. (It worked.) Boshart received a pair of binoculars and a one-year membership to the Friends group.

The kindergarten through first-grade winners were Emily Mallin in first place for “What Do Seeds Need to Grow,” Kaitlyn Redenius in second with “Make Your Own Lava Lamp,” and K. Van Delaney in third for “Really Rapunzel,” which examined hair strength and whether it could really support a full-grown human.

In the second and third-grade category, winners included Violet Kapfer in first place for “What Kinds of Frogs Mate at Different Times”; Jameson Stafford and Monica Broadhead tied for second place with “Hidden Bacteria” and “A Colorful Bouquet,” respectively; Miles Ficenec in third for “How Many Balloons Would it Take to Lift Me Up?”; Gemma Leisgang in fourth for “Which Bakes Better, Conventional vs. Convection?” and Samantha Mallin in fifth for “Raindrop Erosion.”

In the fourth- and fifth- grade category, Aaron Messler took first for “Can You Talk and Focus at the Same Time?”, Hayden Kincaid placed second for “Pigment Pulling,” Nolan Legge took third for “A Battery that Costs Cents,” Calvin Ficenec placed third for “Corrosion,” Francis Kuefler was in fourth for “How Rotten is It?,” Julian Bos finished fifth for “Don’t Be A Liar, Know Your Fire,” and Chloe Manke was in sixth for “Melting Mints.”

In the middle school category, Angela Unate took first place for “Combustion,” Adyn Theriault placed second for “Growing Mold,” Martha Moran was in third for “Disappearing Shells Calcium,” Jax Bound place fourth for “Got Bacteria,” Mary Ellan Moran was fifth for “Acids and Bases,” and Eli Koehler was sixth for “The Chill Factor.”

In the high school category, Emma Hanisko took first place for her “Crazy Curds” project examining the acidity required to produce the perfect cheese curds.

Also during the program was to be a drawing for a microscope and a telescope, with the winners to be chosen among all of the science fair participants. However, the ballots inadvertently were destroyed, so the drawing will be conducted at a later time.

The Fort Atkinson Regional Science Fair is sponsored by Handy Art in honor of Robert LaHann and Paul Raasoch, Fort Atkinson High School science educators who guided, enlightened and inspired scores of Fort Atkinson students.

Additional support comes from Creature Comforts Veterinary Clinic; Epic Resins; Bender, Kind and Stafford; Fort Atkinson Kiwanis Club, Nasco and W.D. Hoard & Sons Co.

Other high-level donors include Badger Bank, Badger Basement Systems, Ball Corporation, Bos Design Builders, Culver’s, Double Three Transportation, JM Carpets, John Miller, Paul Hable, Phil and Linda Niemeyer, the Optimist Club of Fort Atkinson, Outsource Solutions LLC, Tuttle’s Pharmacy, W&A Distribution Services, and Wayne Hayes Real Estate LLC.

Lutzke thanked the Hoard Historical Museum for hosting the fair, the Daily Union for coverage, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and its students for their expertise and organizational assistance, the Dwight Foster Public Library, Netwurx/IDC, and the Fort Atkinson Parks and Recreation Department, as well as all of the participants, judges and volunteers.

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