3D Printing in Education: How Can 3D Printing Help Students?


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3D printing is often discussed in education. Many schools, educators and education authorities are evaluating the technology for possible applications. 3D printing is often cited as a STEM tool or something that can assist teaching staff. It is early days yet, but we will evaluate some of the things you could do in education today with 3D printing.

Making STEM Fun 

In STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) courses, many concepts seem very abstract to kids. Much of the work seems rote based and consists of concepts. Many teachers are therefore focused on using 3D printing and 3D prints to make STEM educational fun and more involving. Generally this could work. Kids could print things and play with them and this might be an enjoyable interesting activity. With investment in educational resources being a constrained thing generally I’m not sure however if some plastic tchotchkes will be a good investment. Whereas there are many children that have been inspired by 3D printers, I’m also not sure that this in and of itself is the best classroom investment.

Making Technology Visible

One thing that may add value, however, is in making technology visible. Many devices nowadays are chip- and processor-based and enclosed. It is difficult for anyone to really understand how your phone works. A 3D printer is a very visual thing. You can see an FDM desktop 3D printer build an object layer by layer. You can show kids a 3D file, explain how a slicer works and show them the Gcode that makes the 3D printer move. Using a printer, complex technology systems can be explained and kids will understand how common technologies interact with each other. Our world is a complex one and understanding interactions with hardware and software will benefit them. Again the business case for this will be complicated due to budget constraints.

Letting Kids Make Their Own Technology

If one goes further and lets kids make their own technology then benefits are unlocked however. Kids will learn about soldering, boards, stepper motors, firmware and electronics. They will understand how to as a team assemble a complex thing they do not understand, if you let them build a 3D printer. It will confront them with a host of new skills. This kind of learning is much more in line with what they will encounter later in life. Teamwork, persevering, acquiring new skills are the kinds of things we need to master as adults. Kids nowadays are still caught often in a rote learning, listen and absorb world where they are tested after the fact. But, challenging them to undertake something, as a team, that is true learning. Getting them to work together to make and explore technology and accomplish something is fun and challenging. Kids like to engage, question and challenge themselves. This is why building their own 3D printers is a rewarding thing for them. What’s more the device can then 3D print all manner of learning tools cost effectively.

Now where is my soldering iron? Image Courtesy of 3DABC.org

Now where is my soldering iron? [Image Courtesy of 3DABC.org]

Does getting children to build their own 3D printer kit sound impossible? Dutch educator Manuela van der Bos of 3DABC has been building 3D printers will children aged 8-12 for a number of years now. She has demonstrated success in over the course of a few weeks building functioning 3D printers with kids. This kind of immersive challenging experience is just what kids are looking for. At the same time they are not spoon fed technology but are making it, creating with it and gain a deep understanding of it.

Introduce Creativity in STEM

STEM — and STEAM, adding Art to the mix —  seems to be a world of numbers and rules floating about. Loose things to be memorized and understood. It does not seem to be a very creative domain. By combining 3D printing with CAD kids can have fun designing things that they want. Simple tools such as TinkerCAD and others can get even the youngest children to make 3D printable parts. They can then explore the link between software and print, between their imagination and a machine that makes it real. This will not only be fun for them but will give them a real connection with technology. By linking their creativity to the making process of a think that they want kids can explore the entire journey from file to part.tinkercad

Understanding What Mathematics and Engineering Do

If one goes further however even more value can be unlocked. Kids ask a lot of ‘Why’ questions when wanting to understand the world. The usefulness of mathematics in particular seems to not be explained well to them. They know it’s important, after all that is repeated often to them. But, why is math important? Why is it useful? And what does it do? One of the best things ever, was when I did a workshop and a kid came up to me and said that he now understood “why there was math.” By trying to calculate how large something in TinkerCAD had to be in order for it to be the right size for him once it was 3D printed, he understood what math did. He understood it as a way to get things made. Spanish was a language for Spanish people. Math was a language for anything that is not people. By seeing the link between the 200 x 200 mm grid on his screen and TinkerCAD, with the file of his part, with the slicer, with the Gcode with the printer printing his part he understood that math was the language connecting all these things. He understood that math was the “why” that made all the Coke cans come out the same size.

Making the Complex Visible

An Mcor Paper Depth Map

An Mcor Paper Depth Map

Kinesthetic learners learn by touching. For them 3D prints can be of real value in letting them learn. Generally however we can all benefit from objects that can make complex concepts visible. If we look in history lessons for example a lot of battles or conquests can be explained, in part, by geography. Kids however usually only have line drawn maps to explain this to them. By using Mcor color 3D printing you can make an inexpensive depth map of a battle or region. This can help kids touch and see height differences and understand the lay of the land through their fingertips. Durable and only costing $1 or so these small depth maps could make history far more comprehensible.

Things like gearboxes, combustion engines and transmissions power our world. They are however hardly understood.

A Toyota transmission.

A Toyota transmission.

This example of a 3D printed Totoya transmission can make the object visible. What’s more, kids can see it move up close. Complex engineering parts and processes can become easy to understand if they are right in front of you. They can be taken apart and put back together or designed so that they are cutaways. Atoms can be printed to scale so they can be compared to other particles. The surface of the moon or paintings can become tactile. Through in-class projects kids can themselves build their own Stirling engines for example. This level of involvement and engineering through play will be of much use to them in later years. A lot of educational reform seems intent on making learning fun through artifice. By giving kids tools such as 3D printing they will in a visual and tactile way experience what it is like to make something. This is a rewarding activity which needs concentration, focus and diligence. It won’t be fun in the same way an iPhone game, drip feeding your brain accomplishment, will be. It will however be a rewarding hands-on experience that will give kids new appreciation for how things are made and how things work.


Teaching Kids to Fail

The best thing 3D printing can do for students however is to teach them to fail. In a standard classroom you listen as you are given information. Then at the end of the week you are tested on that information. You pass or fail or get a grade. There is no feedback, usually, on what areas you need work in or how you can improve. Instead it’s all about “try harder” and “work harder” and “do better next time.” It’s like we’re programming kids to be Sisyphus slogging up the hill. That’s fine if you want to prepare them for life inside a coal mine, but knowledge work is where they may find future employment. Meanwhile many children develop anxiety for the tests themselves and worry intensely about passing or failing. They look for approval in the form of a grade and often work hard to appease or do well for others. In adulthood however it is about doing well for yourself. At the office you’re going to get one evaluation a year but if you wait for that to give you the emotional payoff you need or expect to guide you, you’re going to have a bad time. Kids are precocious but adults are expected to be self-reliant, self-starters, intrinsically motivated, resilient and capable problem solvers. In the current educational system one is supposed to start and finish acquiring those skills amidst the Solo cups and beer pong of college campuses. What if we start earlier by letting kids learn by themselves how to do these things?

When working with kids or even post-graduate young designers I’m often taken aback just how afraid they are of failing, just how much they seek approval or guidance. Young children play and do their own thing creatively. But, it seems that this get stamped out of most of us along the way. Many are frozen by the prospect of failing. This worries me especially since I work in 3D printing. Our technology is a perfect tool for failure.

Fail Harder

We can prototype, iterate, design and fail all day every day. 3D printing lets you fail harder and faster. You can experiment more and seek out the limits of something more with 3D printing. When I work on designing or making things I try to fail as hard as I can. This is a key skill. It is the central advantage of 3D printing. If students could learn to acquire the art of failure then they would able to design better things, design better lives for themselves. Through designing and making in the classroom students will learn how to fail. Learn how to plug away at a problem. Acquire new skills. Learn how to motivate themselves and learn how to, as a team, complete complex tasks with many unknowns.

It is by mastering failure and overcoming that 3D printing unlocks the most value for students themselves. Iterating and improving, learning not to worry but rather learning to improve. I once interviewed Scott Crump, the founder of Stratasys and co-inventor of Fused Deposition Modeling, and asked him what he’d learned along the way. “Fall on your face and get up.” That was the key thing he mentioned. Whether we look at inventing things, innovating, entrepreneurship, self-improvement or just making your life better that is indeed a wise thing to consider. I think that this is the key benefit that 3D printing can give students, the ability to teach them to, “Fall on your face and get up.” Discuss in the 3D Printing in the Classroom forum at 3DPB.com.


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