3D printed Pseudosphere model

Tailor-made: Engineering custom projects for instructors

A picture is worth a thousand words, but tangible tools can speak volumes. Utilizing 3D printed models in today’s classroom can not only help create an immersive learning environment for students, but it can also help bring difficult concepts to life. 

3D printers are now available in many higher education facilities, but the right tools often require custom designed prints. This is where an in-house designer/3D print fabricator steps in. Having a technician on board who is skilled in custom designing 3D models can be an invaluable resource, as this person can help create the tools for hands-on learning.

At Virginia Western Community College, I work mostly with classroom technologies, maintaining existing technology as well as trying new and innovative gadgets for instructors to use. About a year and a half ago, my department was awarded a grant to purchase a 3D printer. The idea was to experiment with ways in which 3D printing could be implemented across a variety of curriculums. We began printing generic Thingiverse files, but after speaking with multiple instructors, it became clear that what they really needed could not be found on Thingiverse or any other similar site. This led me to begin creating my own custom designs.

To start the process, I begin by meeting with instructors to discuss what their particular needs are for their lesson plans. I leave each meeting with rough sketches of what the potential object needs to look like, along with its dimensions. I then utilize software such as Autodesk Inventor or TinkerCAD to draft the object virtually. Naturally, the complexity of the object dictates what software I use, although in some cases, I’ll use both to achieve the best outcome. Finally, I settle on a design and print a prototype. There are times when adjustments need to be made per the instructor, therefore communication is crucial in developing the best models for learning.

One of the first projects I worked on was for a Basic Blueprint and Sketching class. The idea was for the students to draw blueprints of various three-dimensional objects. The instructor gave me blueprints for randomly shaped objects, which mostly resembled mechanical parts, and I then converted and printed the 2D drawings using Inventor. The reverse engineering used in this assignment helped the students approach the material from a different viewpoint. The 3D print brought the 2D blueprint to life.

"When students are trying to learn to read one view to three view drawings, it is difficult for them to visualize the items in 3D. Items that have been 3D printed help the student understand how each view works and relates to each other."

Joe Collins
Adjunct Instructor
Virginia Western Community College


mechanical design

Lanette Upshaw, Assistant Professor of Chemistry was having difficulty getting her students to visualize the Carbocation Intermediate drawing in their textbook. The 2D drawing in the book was confusing, to say the least. I was able to create a 3D model of it in TinkerCAD and used different color filament for the element symbols to make them stand out. They were simply superglued on the base model.

"I have seen an increase in success on questions related to this concept on the students’ exams as well as their written lab reports."

Lanette Upshaw
Assistant Professor - Chemistry
Virginia Western Community College


Carbocation Intermediate

Similar to the chemistry instructor, a math professor was having trouble explaining what a Pseudosphere looked like in a three-dimensional space once the equation was graphed. He had tried drawing it on the chalkboard but to no avail. Parametric equations aren’t my strong suit but he was able to make a rough sketch on a napkin for me. From that sketch, I created a 3D model in Inventor and printed it in two pieces for easier print setup. The two halves were glued together, creating a large Pseudosphere that he could pass around the class.



The biggest project to date has been the 21 Amino Acids a Biology instructor brought to me, hand drawn. He not only wanted them 3D modeled but wanted all of them able to interlock, fold over on each other and have the H2O molecule separate from the bond. A deceptively simple design of interlocking ball joints was 100% created with TinkerCAD.

"...creating those 3D shapes is something that was previously very difficult working with paper models, and unlike computer simulations, the amino acid models that were printed for us are things students can actually touch and manipulate."

Mark Lazar, PhD
Adjunct Associate Professor of Biology
Virginia Western Community College


Amino Acid
Amino acids from sketch to classroom