3D printing in your classroom–so what?

How does 3D printing impact classroom practices and student learning?

3D-printingTwo years ago, I was telling a friend about 3D printing, and she thought I was teasing her. After watching several YouTube videos and reading a few articles, she reluctantly acknowledged its existence with a skeptical look.

“Oh yeah, sure. I can design something on a computer and this machine will fabricate it out of plastic in a few minutes. Ahoy, Captain Picard. Next you’ll believe me if I tell you that they can print houses out of plywood or human kidneys out of stem cells. Pfff.”

It amazes me that in the short time since my friend thought I was pulling her leg, 3D printers have become standard technology in most schools.

Apparently the nexus of low cost, simplicity of software, and the street cred that comes along with owning something this cool has made it hard for even the most cash-strapped schools to resist taking the plunge.

(Next page: 5 ways 3D printing can have an impact)

But after the wow-factor has worn off, and schools have burned through kilos of Polylactic Acid to find themselves inundated with plastic chains, nuts, bolts, and shark-shaped chip bag clips, one might reasonably ask the question: “What are we learning here?”

There has to be more involved, educationally, than kids learning how to level the build plate and press the print button.

This question became a major concern for me this spring when I agreed to teach a week-long summer school course on 3D printing. Having no real experience with 3D printing, I had a lot of homework to do. I figured that the process must be fairly complex if we were offering an entire course on it.

From what I can tell so far, I was wrong.

Apparently, there isn’t much to 3D printing beyond the basic mechanics of operating the machine. At least this is the case when it comes to my classroom needs.

Like with 2D printers, the mechanics of turning bits of data into something tangible is relatively trivial.

But there is nothing trivial about the work that goes into manipulating and shaping those bits of data so that they are ready to become a printed essay, poem, story, or photograph, and such is also the case in the production of objects that use the Z axis.

For some reason, however, we have chosen to focus on the product, rather than the process, by calling the class I am going to teach “3D Printing” instead of “3D Design” or “Solids Modeling.”

This seems kind of funny. After all, when my school got its first dot-matrix printers, I didn’t change the name of my English class to “Essay Printing.”

Maybe things are different now, because these devices seem to add something substantial to our classes.

Schools have been teaching 3D design for a long time. How could a single piece of equipment, whose job seems to be all about the output of learning products rather than the design of them, have a meaningful impact on instruction?

As I thought about this question, I began to see a few areas where having quick access to the physical manifestation of a student-designed object could teach some important lessons.

Below are five “enduring understandings” that students can develop through the use of a 3D printer in their design process:

  • Precision is valuable in any design, but the precision of any technological device has limitations and costs. The value of a highly precise or high resolution design must always be balanced against such costs and limitations.
  • When you create a virtual object, your digital design tools have a finite number of variables that can be controlled quite nicely. In the physical world, your creation can be affected by an arbitrary number of variables that are often difficult to predict and account for.
  • You will almost never get it exactly right the first time. Persistence, coupled with adaptations, will eventually lead to success.
  • Collaboration is difficult, and requires compromise. But when done well, it is powerful beyond belief in the design of large, complex projects.
  • It is possible to imagine something into existence.

Obviously, none of these things have anything to do with the mechanics of 3D printing. Sure, students should learn the tips and tricks of removing stuck objects from the build plate and knowing when it’s important to use rafts and supports, but these are probably not anyone’s real objectives.

Quick access to the tangible products of their imagination makes learning opportunities possible, where students can begin to uncover enduring understandings that make them fundamentally better designers and problem solvers.

Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for over 20 years. He is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School and can be reached at @shawt, +TrevorShaw, and shawt@d-e.org.

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