Stimulating Minds: 3D Printing Shines As A Learning Tool

shutterstock_199681517Giving high-school students access to 3D design and printing equipment seems to have a profound, positive effect on learning and communication, according to a pilot study in Greece.

The project ties in with a theory called constructionist learning – first put forward by eminent mathematician and computer scientist Seymour Papert – which suggests people learn things most effectively when they construct mental models to understand the world around them.

Taking the idea a stage further, the researchers provided access to an open-source 3D printer and design platform, allowing students to collaboratively design and create tangible objects in the real word.  This could certainly make the approach even more powerful.

“We asked what role could 3D printing and design, along with modern information and communications technology (ICT), play in developing and implementing new educational ideas based on the principles of constructionism,” say the researchers from the Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia.

More than 30 high school students aged 15-16 were given a crash course in 3D designs and printing using the equipment provided, and were then encouraged to create 3D-printed artifacts that were novel, usable and – if desired – could be designed for use by blind children.

“The children were expected to think creatively; experiment; adapt and perform creatively in small-groups, pairs or even individually,” note the researchers.

Timer_3dPAll told, 17 artefacts were printed by the students during the ‘project course’ – a two-hour weekly lesson included in the Greek curriculum for research-based projects. In all but three cases the children opted to design the items with blind people in mind. Examples included a 3D comic book, a Braille version of the Sudoku puzzle game, a cup with the message ‘drink me’ inscribed in Braille and a Rubik’s cube with Braille language letters instead of colours.

Another group designed and created a variation on an hourglass, which used marbles instead of sand to produce sound and allow a blind user to count the passage of time.

The project helped students “think differently than they did previously and, thus, see the world differently,” write the authors in the journal Telematics and Informatics (article in press).

A teacher from one of the schools that took part in the project, Loukianos Xaxiris, said the project also helped with issues, such as a lack of engagement by students.

“My class consisted of generally uncooperative, especially concerning the project course, students who – surprisingly enough – were very willing to engage in this particular project,” he told the researchers.

That sentiment was echoed by a teacher from the second school, Christos Bitsis, who said: ” this change is a result of children’s increased connection with the world … followed by an increase in their self-esteem.”

While the experiment was a success, the researchers did uncover one problem. It was great that two schools were happy to embrace the initiative, but the directors of several others “seemed unable to comprehend our goals and [were] unwilling to cooperate.”

The team now calls for more research in this area making use, not only of open-source 3D printing, but also other open source hardware such as Arduino microcontrollers.

We may be on the cusp of radical changes within our education systems around the world.  3D printing promises to play a major role.  Let us know your thoughts on this story and others related to 3D printing in education, in the 3D printing for education forum on 3DPB.com.

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