We are in an exciting time in education, where innovative topics like Design Thinking, Rapid Prototyping, Entrepreneurism, Engineering Design, High Quality Project-Based Learning, and The Future of Work are at the center of discussion. How can we give our students the chance to master content knowledge while integrating these student-centered approaches to education in the classroom? For the last five years, 3D printing has been an important part of my classroom because it encourages an innovation mindset, exposes students to elements of design thinking, and fosters self-directed learning.

How 3D Printing Works

3D printers extrude melted filament onto a build plate, one horizontal layer at a time. Here’s how the 3D printing process works, from start-to-finish:

  1. Design an object: Use 3D design software such as Tinkercad or SketchUp (both free) to create an object. Unlike inkjet or laser printers, 3D printers cannot print files directly from these software programs.
  2. Export the object for printing: To print an object, the file will need to be exported from the 3D design software, typically as an STL or OBJ file.
  3. Slice the object: The STL or OBJ files do not contain printer-specific instructions for how to print the object layer-by-layer, which is called slicing. Free software such as Cura or Slic3r creates and saves these instructions in a file format supported by your printer. Some printing platforms, such as the Polar Cloud, take the STL or OBJ file through a built-in slicer behind the scenes.
  4. Print the object: Upload the file to your printer, and watch the layers print!

Ideas for Integrating 3D Printing into Your Classroom

Where can you integrate 3D printing in your class? Anywhere!! If you currently have a lesson or project where your students create or build something by hand, you can easily alter the assignment to allow 3D printing as an optional or required medium. If your school does not have a 3D printer, programs such as the GE Additive Education Program are making it easier to acquire one.

Here are some lesson ideas for your students, by discipline:

  • Geometry: Create an object, then draw its orthographic projection; Create a shape, compute its volume, and physically verify the volume; Design a shape that has a specific volume and verify the volume; Print objects and find the center of gravity or turn them into a mobile and find the center of gravity; Design shapes that satisfy the Golden Ratio; Design tesselating shapes.
  • Algebra/Pre-Calculus/Calculus: Use software to rotate a function around an axis and print the resulting shape as either a solid object or hollow vase; Use estimation or calculus to compute the volume of the solid or hollow vase and physically verify the volume; Print polynomial, exponential, trigonometric, polar, or parametric graphs and hang them in the classroom.
  • History/Social Studies: Research, design, 3D print, and decorate an ancient artifact or tool and write about its origins, use, and history.
  • English/Language Arts:  Link 3D printing to a book project. One of my colleagues asked her students, who were reading Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, to create a device to help the main character carry out her everyday activities. Some students 3D printed prototypes of their device.
  • Science: Design a phone case that survives a fall from a given height; Create models of molecules or crystalline structures; Design blades for a small pinwheel or windmill; Design simple gears that turn together; Design objects and find their center of gravity.
  • Art: Model work from an artist who currently works in 3D printing. Check out this article about how 3D printing has changed the art world.
  • Design Thinking, Engineering Design: With 3D printing, inventions or ideas can quickly become prototypes, giving students time to fix designs that fail on the first try.
  • Additional resources for ideas: Thingiverse, Makerbot Educators Guidebook, Ultimaker Educator Resources, STEAMTRAX curriculum.

Tips to Make Your 3D Printing Project Run Smoothly

1. Get familiar with the basics of 3D design software.

If you are new to 3D design software, spend some time learning how to navigate so that you can assist your students with basic questions. You do not need to be an expert, but it is helpful if you can suggest useful videos for students to watch when they need assistance.

2. Explain to your students how 3D printers work.

When students understand how 3D printers work, they design objects that have a better chance of printing without issue. Some 3D printing problems can be avoided by rotating an object so that it prints in a different direction, or by dividing it into several parts and printing each part separately. Slicing software can also build temporary supports as an object print. This time-lapse video shows a dragon as it is printed, with supports that are removed after the print completes.

3. Provide plenty of rulers.

Before starting, know the size limitations (length, width, and height) of your 3D printer. When students ask, “Is 10 millimeters long enough?”, hand them a ruler and let them figure it out themselves. If students don’t ask about measurements, remind them to check the dimensions of their design to ensure it is an appropriate size.

4. Plan extra time in your project timeline for the 3D prints to complete.

Your slicing software will estimate the print time of each object. I typically add several weeks to the project timeline to allow me to complete the prints. We move on to other topics during that time, returning to the project when printing is complete.

5. Consider placing size restrictions on the objects.

For some lessons, I plan to print one object per student. In this case, I give students a size restriction or scale their objects so that the print takes no longer than 30 minutes.

6. Consider asking each student to design their own object.

Some of my 3D printing projects are individual projects. I typically schedule these in the beginning of the year so that everyone learns how to use the software, watches their object print, and sees the impact of their design choices on the 3D print. As time permits, I allow students to redesign and reprint their object if the print fails the first time.

7. Keep track of student objects.

It is very easy to lose track of objects and files, especially when there are multiple versions of each. To prevent confusion, I ask students to include their name and version number in the 3D printing filename. As objects finish printing, I immediately write student names on them with either tape or permanent marker.

8. Be flexible and have fun!

Everyone gets excited when they see designs quickly coming to life. If something doesn’t work right, brainstorm a solution with a class. The successes AND failures are equally important learning!

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