Not long ago, 3D printers were the hot new edtech tool. Costing thousands of dollars, they were prized possessions that only teachers in specialties such as art and engineering knew how to use.
Today, they have become necessary devices in ever-evolving, increasingly sophisticated classrooms in all subjects. And out in the workplace, students who have mastered this technology are in high demand in a wide range of professions.
In the restaurant industry, for example, 3D printers produce pancakes in the shape of a customer’s face. In a more serious medical application, 3D printers create faces and parts of faces that patients have lost in accidents.
“They are embedded” says Christopher Nesmith, career and technical education director at West Valley School District in Yakima, Washington. “They’re a regular part of the curriculum.”
West Valley is not alone. From kindergarten to senior year, from basic problem-solving to career prep, 3D printers have become instructional backbones coast to coast.
Tweak it, and try again
In industry, 3D printers manufacture real-world pieces and parts. Familiarity with the technology is as important for today’s STEM-bound graduates as understanding how to use a computer was 20 years ago.
In the West Valley district, students dive right into 3D printing in middle school, and it quickly becomes a tool that advances their skills in other areas. For example, middle schoolers 3D-print model cars to test for aerodynamics in a wind turbine.
The 3D printer creates a prototype. The students then replicate the prototype out of wood with a CNC router, a high-tech cutting machine.
West Valley students must understand 3D printing before entering the district’s two-year Boeing Core Plus curriculum in high school. From there, students can advance to the Boeing manufacturing program and, potentially, an apprenticeship with the aircraft company.
The curriculum allows students to meet graduation requirements while earning manufacturing skills they will need to enter the workforce.
Nesmith offers pointers for other educators: The next generation of the workforce will also need to understand the software and computer language used by these printers.
Even as the printers evolve, the basic concepts will remain the same. Schools should also ensure their 3D printing technology matches what is used in student internships or apprenticeships.
In South Carolina, students in Robert Molkenthin’s computer-aided design and drafting classes at the Aiken County Career & Technology Center already use their skills in the real world. A local orthodontist guides the class in printing 3D models of patients’ mouths and gums to determine where to place implants.
The class also works with the county health department to create prosthetics. Elsewhere at the school, students studying fashion have printed sandal prototypes while students in the school’s fire-training program manufactured new parts to fix a broken siren light on a donated fire truck.
“The first attempt was off by 5/1000th of an inch, so the light wouldn’t turn” he says. “Thanks to the 3D printer, they were able to press on, make another model and it worked.”
That is the main lesson for students: “Take something that doesn’t work, tweak it and watch the product work” Molkenthin says.
Learning without realizing it
3D printers create STEM lessons naturally, says Michael Roland, technology instructor at the Public Schools of Calumet-Laurium-Keweenaw on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The printer must be told what to create, and that is done by plotting lines on a graph. “You can’t do 3D printing without talking about the x- and y-axes” he says.
Roland’s classes use the printers for engineering lessons, such as bridge-building competitions in which students learn from each mistake as they re-plot their structures.
He also lets students design their own products, because when a student hatches an idea, they will go to great lengths—and through lots of calculations—to see it completed, he says. And suddenly, math isn’t some abstract concept that students think they will never use in real life.
With 3D printing, students learn—and prepare for future careers—without even realizing it. One student, for example, made an innovative pencil holder, but never thought to measure the pencil beforehand and it didn’t fit, Nesmith says.
“When you look at something on a computer, you can’t see what it is going to look like in the real world” he says. “3D printers allow you to touch and feel it and see the prototype of what you created with science, math and engineering.”
STEM educator Amy Farkas has turned to 3D printers to teach neuroscience to her seventh-graders at Seitz Middle School in Riverview Community School District near Detroit.
Students attach electrodes to their arms to control “grabbing claws” that use cloths to pick up items. Students print out cloths with different circumferences and textures to see what grabs best. Students have to determine which variables need to change to improve their cloth’s grab-ability.
Students have also experimented with other everyday items that can be created for very little cost, says Farkas, who self-funds her printers by applying for grants, seeking out coupons and participating in contests. For instance, students have made security wedges to block doors and holders for mobile keyboards.
“My students find something every day to improve on or to replace what is missing” she says. “This allows them to re-engineer and make things better.”
Liberal arts canoes
The technology of 3D printing even benefits the youngest learners. Jim Betz, media specialist at the K2 Banks County Primary School in Georgia, says his students create drawings that can be printed in three dimensions.
For example, when students studied different versions of “The Gingerbread Man” some of their drawings of the main character were made into cookie cutters. At this age, the students don’t sit down at the computer to design products. Rather, they watch as items are designed and they become familiar with the process.
When students read the book Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling, Betz printed out several small canoes carrying Native American figures. The children wrote about where they wanted their canoe to end up before releasing the small boats into a river.
Each canoe had a QR code on it so that when it was found, its location could be logged onto the school’s web site.
In this case, the printers were more than STEM tools—they supplemented language arts, history and geography lessons. “The best thing we ever did was put the 3D printer in the library” Betz says. “We get 330 kids a day watching a layer or two of plastic get put down. I like exposing them to the concept and letting them realize the capabilities.”
Shawna De La Rosa is a freelance writer in California.