Learning how to 3D design and 3D print is important for all ages; there’s no real argument against that. But what is the best way to go about teaching young people about 3D printing? One key: make it fun, whether you’re working with kindergartners or college students. One could argue that 3D printing is fun in itself, but evidence shows that students learn better when they can truly engage with what they’re doing.
So how does an educator get his or her students to engage with 3D printing? The University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) had a great idea – have the students 3D print their own lightsabers. The first mechanical engineering course that students take at the school teaches them how to 3D model and 3D print, and in the fall 2017 class, the instructors decided to celebrate the fact that the new Star Wars movie was coming out, as well as presenting a challenge to their students.
It wasn’t a simple project. The students each had to design a lightsaber that was about eight inches long and made up of 15 different parts that fit together. They then had to be mounted on a laser-cut stand. It was a daunting challenge for the students, who at first thought they wouldn’t be able to do it, but 86 out of 90 students ended up completing the project last semester.
“When I first started teaching this class four semesters ago, we didn’t have any 3D printers,” said Sam Mills, a PhD student who teaches a section of the class. “So, first the department ordered a bunch of 3D printers, which was awesome, and then we had to figure out a project to do with them. Since the new ‘Star Wars’ movie was coming out, we figured this would be a good way to work some of this in there.”
Designing and 3D printing a variety of parts means that the students get a broad range of 3D modeling and printing experience during the project. They also learn that setbacks are a normal part of the 3D printing process.
When they’re finished with the project, the students have the skills to create prototypes and end-use parts through 3D printing, in whatever field they decide to go into. They also get to take home their very own lightsaber – learning to use the Force, presumably, is extra credit. The student whose lightsaber was judged to be the best at the end of the semester also won tickets to go see The Last Jedi, which came out around the end of the semester.
“Even if you design something perfectly on a computer, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to work out perfectly in real life,” Mills said.
When starting to teach 3D modeling and 3D printing to young children, it’s obvious that they’ll learn better if they’re working with a project they can relate to, which is why there’s so much curriculum that has kids designing and 3D printing their own toys. It’s less obvious with college students, but when they’re just starting out, it’s just as important to keep things fun and relatable, as this project showed. More utilitarian projects can be moved onto later – but as a starter project, a lightsaber is the perfect combination of entertainment and design complexity.
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