A sturgeon-sized undertaking, but high-schoolers up to the task

Chattanooga, Tenn. – From rapidly creating prototypes to replacing missing pieces of board games, the uses of 3-D printing technology are as numerous as they are diverse.

In the ever-broadening universe of applications for 3-D printing, however, creating a near-life-size likeness of a massive Lake Sturgeon probably doesn’t seem like the most likely of projects. For the last three months, however, students at Dade County High School (DCHS) in Trenton, Ga., have been designing, printing and assembling components for a realistic, six-foot replica of one of these riverine giants for the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI).

At Dade County High School on Monday, Dec. 17, the students and their instructor presented the completed replica to Sarah Sweat, the Conservation Institute’s Geographic Information Systems Analyst.

The process of creating the sturgeon has been an exercise in trial and error, as well as a valuable learning experience, says Dade County High School’s Nick Wilson. Wilson teaches the school’s advanced mechatronics class, a multi-disciplinary course combining elements of robotics and electrical, mechanical and computer engineering.

In September, Wilson assigned three of his advanced mechatronics students — Logan Gordy, Dakota Angle and Taryn York — to head up the sturgeon build. Two other students, Caleb Munger and Basil Nakhleh also contributed to the project. The students have been solely responsible for creating the model.

“We started with brainstorming the design of something organic, then learning new tools to use in the 3-D software along the way and trial and error on the assembly side of things,” Wilson says. “All of this was an enormous task for the students.”

The Conservation Institute’s Sweat first learned about Wilson’s mechatronics class through her husband, Matt Sweat, who teaches English at DCHS. Last year, she approached Wilson and his class about designing and printing models of small freshwater insects and crustaceans for use in her Georgia Adopt-A-Stream class.

Based on that project’s success, she says, she decided Wilson’s students could handle a more complicated project for a much bigger animal.

The Lake Sturgeon is a state-endangered species in Tennessee, having almost disappeared from the river system by the 1970s. Since the formation of the Lake Sturgeon Working Group in 1998, the Aquarium and its partners have raised and released more than 220,000 juvenile Lake Sturgeon back into the species’ historic range.

Because of its scarcity in the river, few people have encountered a Lake Sturgeon unless they’ve touched one at the Tennessee Aquarium. A near-life-size model of this enormous fish would help even more people to better understand the species’ size and its importance to the river’s ecosystem, Sweat says.

So she turned to Wilson once again with a request to help TNACI add some oomph to its big fish story.

“Tour groups at the institute can see juvenile Lake Sturgeon before they are reintroduced, but many of the ones they see are only six to nine inches long,” she says. “The Lake Sturgeon grows to be six to eight feet long and can live up to 150 years. To show visitors what a fully grown sturgeon would look like, we wanted a model that not only conveys its size but that they can also touch and interact with.”

It was a big ask but one Wilson says his students were capable of tackling.

Dade County has four 3-D printers, and all were used during the production of the Lake Sturgeon. The students used 3-D design software to model the fish using images Sweat provided. The completed model was split into parts that could be printed individually. In all, the students created 35 parts, each of which had to be sanded, bonded together, patched, re-sanded and painted.

The students made use of online resources as well as photos and academic literature provided by Sweat and other Conservation Institute scientists. At the onset of the project, few of the students involved had even heard of a sturgeon. After months spent digitally modeling one in painstaking detail, however, Gordy now is able to effortlessly rattle off a laundry list of its anatomical features.

“At first, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t even know what a sturgeon looked like,” the eleventh grader says, smiling wryly. “I believe the Lake Sturgeon deserves to be better known.”

Building the sturgeon took more than 100 hours to design and assemble and more than 500 hours of print time. As part of their assignment, the students kept a detailed engineering notebook to document their progress.

Since they were acquired three years ago, the school’s 3-D printers primarily have been used to create comparatively simple items like small keychains or large replicas of video game props. Measured against those projects, Wilson says, the sturgeon was by far the school’s most-ambitious use of what is still considered by many to be an emerging technology.

The results of the students’ work, which they have lovingly nicknamed Sharon, now hold a place of honor at the Conservation Institute’s freshwater science center. There, the more-than-six-foot-long model will be used to help people forge a deeper connection with a fish that was once imperiled by human activity and now is experiencing a resurgence thanks to human efforts.

For Wilson, however, the payoff of this project is something more intangible.

“The greatest thing I could hope for my students was for them to learn how to take something seemingly impossible in their eyes and make it possible,” Wilson says. “I took on the task before asking if they could do it, because I already knew the answer to that.

“I stepped in at critical points to help, but I was not a member of their team. I think they take pride in that.”

— Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute

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