Integrating 3D Printers Into Your Curriculum

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By Scott Sterling

When adopting a STEM approach or creating a makerspace, acquiring a 3D printer is high on the wish list. They tend to be the most popular efforts on education crowdfunding sites, especially as prices come down.

The problem is that not too many people understand a 3D printer’s purpose. Sure, they print objects using plastic, but what can those objects do and how can they add to my lessons? Luckily, pioneering teachers have come up with some best practices for 3D printing in nearly any classroom.

A shift in pedagogy

3D printing, and STEM-based project learning in general, works best when students are free to explore the possibilities for themselves. Instructing everyone to print a tree can help the students learn how the machine works, but there’s no creativity involved. Instead, wherever possible, ask the students to choose problems that they would like to solve for themselves. It may be as simple as building a better mousetrap, or as complicated as designing and programming a robot to help clean bedrooms. There’s no idea too large to attack through the systematic design process and iteration.

What skills are being taught?

This should be the first consideration when acquiring a 3D printer. If you don’t know why you want it, you shouldn’t get one. That starts with knowing the skills that students will be learning through the 3D printer’s use.

The plans for 3D printing are designed in CAD software. There are pre-made plans available on the Internet, but part of STEM is being able to use technology to solve problems. That means learning CAD and seeing your work pay off. Not to mention that CAD skills are in high demand, not only in the professional engineering world but also in CTE programs that funnel students into high-paying jobs.

More abstractly, using a 3D printer to make something that solves a problem, like some sort of invention, exercises problem solving, critical thinking, visualization, and spatial skills. If the problem is complicated enough, collaboration comes into play as well.

Executive function can be bolstered if you have the students come up with their own problems to solve during this project-based learning scenario.

Partnering with real-world organizations

Although there are plenty of lessons available online centered around 3D printing, why not solicit help from local businesses or makerspaces who are well-versed in the needs of the local economy and how 3D printing helps fill those needs? This not only injects your curriculum with real-world problems, but it can also open pathways for student internships, mentorships, and employment once school is finished. If they can kick in to help offset some of the costs (even after you’ve purchased the printer, the materials add a considerable ongoing cost), even better!

3D printers are one of the most exciting tools to come into classrooms. They provide educational experiences that cannot be replicated without access to complicated, costly, and sometimes dangerous professional machines that can’t fit in a classroom. Knowing what you’re getting into and why you’re doing it can make success and student benefit much more likely.