3D printing is not just novel and exciting.
This technology has society-changing power akin to the advent of the printing press, the steam engine, the telephone and the computer. Design and manufacturing are transformed – they are now democratized. Your students deserve early access to this technology and the skill sets needed to employ it.
By 2017 — according to a 3D Dimension Research paper — 55% of schools in North America had already acquired 3D printers. Of those, 77% intended to purchase additional 3D printers so as to make them more accessible to their students.
Is your school keeping pace?
3D printing has vast applicability within the school system. Consider, for a moment, how computers are used within your school by administrative staff, teachers and students. The ordinary and everyday benefits of computers are astounding. The learning applications are, of course, incalculable.
What if we told you that 3D printers are analogous?
This tech allows your school to produce needed items inexpensively. What if we told you that your school no longer needs to buy expensive math manipulatives or molecular model sets because teachers (or students!) can 3D-print them for pennies? That your maintenance staff can now 3D-print replacement parts (from washers to coat-hooks and far beyond) for pennies?
But 3D printing is also a gateway to learning through design. Your elementary students can use computer-assisted design software designed for young children to learn basic engineering principles. They can design and 3D print simple jewelry or keychains in art class. Your junior high students can 3D print models of internal combustion engines or shark teeth for science class. Or whistles to help them understand audio frequencies. Your high school students can 3D-print the chemical structure of benzene for chemistry class. Or design a bicycle or a prosthetic hand for an Industrial Arts project.
3D printing can be used to produce lesson-centered material representations of: well, almost anything!
But that is only scratching the surface. The learning applications of 3D printing go far beyond that.
Just as it has been important for students to become increasingly conversant with computers as their education progresses, it is likewise imperative that students understand how 3D printing is transforming society. Did you know that 3D printing has another name? It is also called additive manufacturing. (For more information on why that term is used, please see Additive Manufacturing 101.) Creative processes of design & development of a product and physical creation of that product are in a phase of rapid evolution due to the cataclysmic changes that additive manufacturing (3D printing) is having on industry.
3D printing not only expedites the whole creative process but democratizes it. Items that could previously only have been designed and produced by large corporations — and expensively, at that! — can now be designed and created by children. A 3D printer is a tool that — together with age-appropriate computer-assisted design software — students can learn to employ in creative and constructive ways. In genuinely useful ways. These young learners will — literally— rebuild society with 3D printers.
They simply need to be equipped.
3D printing & educational theory
In order to evaluate the value of 3D printing in classrooms, a little background might be required.
Some of the pedagogical benefits of this technology can best be explained by ‘constructivism’, sometimes referred to as ‘constructionism’. This is an educational philosophy introduced by Jean Piaget and developed by Seymour Papert.
Constructivism essentially posits that children learn about the world around them by touching and feeling (or in the case of toddlers, sometimes tasting!). That there are strong connections between information retention and tactile sensation, and also between retention, visualization and spatial relations. It is thought that this early formative relationship between learner and the physical environment can be perpetuated.
Any teacher or parent interacting with children can attest to the power of ‘material proximity’ in education. Consider the difference between telling a child about an ice cube, showing the same child a picture of an ice cube, or allowing a child to feel and handle an ice cube.
The more the child is able to interact with the object, the more the child will be able to relate and to retain information about the object in question. In other words, learners can expand their own knowledge by ‘constructing’ – or making – and interacting with physical objects.
In many ways, constructivism stands in contrast to the mass-education movements of the 20th century which gave rise to teacher-centered instructional methods.
The advent of the Internet has presented both challenges and opportunities to the top-down diffusion of information. Today, a student wanting to learn about the Pyramids of Giza can Google and access hundreds of articles on the subject within seconds, much of which goes much deeper than information contained in the textbook they are reading.
3D printing & project-based learning
However useful being able to replicate lesson specific items may be, it is only scratching the surface of the potential of 3D printing in the classroom. Increasing in popularity are more student-centered approaches to teaching, including its integration in what is popularly referred to as Problem or Project Based Learning (PBL).
The essence of Project Based Learning requires students to work on a project over an extended period of time – from a week up to a semester – that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. They demonstrate their knowledge and skills by developing a public product or presentation for a real audience.
Some of the skills cultivated through this process include:
Collaboration: Relationships formed during collaboration is a huge part of PBL. Not only do students learn how to work better in groups—providing their own input, listening to others, and resolving conflicts when they arise—they build positive relationships with teachers, which reinforces how great learning is. Students also form relationships with community members when working on projects, gaining insight for careers and beyond.
Problem Solving: Students learn how to solve problems that are important to them; they have an opportunity to address real community needs.
Creativity: Students apply creative thinking skills to invent new product designs and generate possibilities for projects.
In-Depth Understanding: Students build on their research skills and deepen their learning of applied content beyond facts and rote memorization.
Self-Confidence: Students find their voice and learn to take pride in their work, boosting their agency and sense of purpose.
Critical Thinking: Students learn to look at problems with a critical thinking lens, asking questions and coming up with possible solutions for their project.
Perseverance: Students learn to manage obstacles more effectively, often learning from failure and possibly starting over from scratch.
Project Management: Students learn how to manage projects and assignments more efficiently.
Curiosity: Students explore, ask questions and form a new love for learning.
Empowerment: Students take ownership over their projects, reflecting on and celebrating their progress and accomplishments.
The 3D printing process promotes active learning and encourages creative thinking. It empowers students. Imagine, for example, asking your senior high small-groups to design a drone capable of carrying a size C battery. Or asking your junior high students to design an elastic-propelled vehicle. 3D printing is a very strategic application of project-based learning!
Where do we go from here?
Of course, it starts with an investment into a versatile and safe 3D printer, but mere acquisition of a 3D printer is insufficient. In order to fully realize the benefits of 3D printing technology for students and your school, we recommend the development of solid integration strategy.
This always includes ensuring teachers are properly equipped: they themselves may need instruction on the use of 3D printers and associated software, or guidance on how to integrate 3D printing into their class plan for the year. Some manufacturers, including Flashforge, have developed curricula for educator use, but what integration should look like really up to you.
i3D has developed a Seven Step Program to help you plan where and how to include 3D printing in your educational setting. We also offer consultations for those institutions wanting help developing a school-specific integration plan.
What are your goals for your students this year? How can we help?