Students working

Student response to 3D printing

  • Written by Dr. Toni Szymanski
    Jun 25, 2018
  • Category:
    / Education

Pioneer Dr. Toni Szymanski writes about how teaching with 3D printing can make a big difference.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the “starfish story” so I will recap it here:

After a big storm a man was seen walking along a beach that was covered with starfish that had washed up on shore. Every couple of seconds he would reach down, pick one up and toss it back into the ocean. Another person came along and said “why are you wasting your time doing that – you’ll never save them all.” The man didn’t answer back, just reached down, picked up another starfish and tossed it back to the sea – he turned and said “made a difference for that one.”

This is the mystery of interaction and for me, teaching in particular. I never know when a lesson that I plan, a paper that I write, or a talk that I give will impact a teacher or student. Yet that is my intention with every aspect of my work. To change the world, one person at a time and “make a difference for that one.”

Recently, I had the terrific opportunity to see this at work through my study on 3D printing using the Ultimaker 3 Extended printers in middle schools. In one of the rural schools, the teacher that was most excited to use the printers taught Response to Intervention (RTI) math courses. RTI is a multi-tiered approach to help students who are struggling, and their progress is closely monitored at each stage of intervention to determine the need for further research-based instruction and/or intervention in general education, in special education, or both. She was excited to give kids the chance to use technology and see math in a different light. This teacher struggled a bit in the summer training when it came to using Fusion 360 to design the projects. Yet, she kept thinking of her students who struggle daily, and she came up with some fantastic ideas for how she could use this technology to get them engaged in math.

Along with teaching the RTI math students, this teacher serves as an advisor to the Student Technology Leadership Program club that meets at the school weekly. Knowing that these advanced students would appreciate the opportunity to work with a 3D printer, she gave the club members access to the Ultimaker. The kids fell in love with it as soon as they saw it. As this was early fall, the kids thought of making custom Christmas ornaments to sell to raise money to purchase their own 3D printer.

The student response was amazing. Fridays are shorter days in this district to allow teachers to have professional learning time together, so it was determined that each Friday the kids would come to the lab to work on their projects and the teacher would print their models out over the weekend. Needless to say, Mondays were quite exciting when the kids got to see their products. This dedicated teacher spent several Saturdays printing projects, maintaining the printers, and even fixing the occasional clogged nozzle, to keep the kids excited. The tremendous response of the students came to the attention of the School Board and the teacher and students were invited to come to a meeting to present what they were doing with the printers. Everyone was excited and nervous to share. Some of the STLP club members suggested that having 3D printing and technology as an elective course for 8th graders would be a great opportunity. They also let the audience know that they were taking orders for their fundraising ornaments. They were swamped with requests at the end of the meeting. To date, they have raised $300 and hope to find grant funding to help them achieve their goal of buying their own 3D printer.


student presentation


a student presentation

As part of my study, I observe the students in regular math classes and then in a 3D design class to see if there are differences in student engagement and learning. When I spent the day watching the RTI class in the computer lab I was thrilled to see the kids excited to come in and begin to work quickly and intently. In addition to the computers, the teacher had set up a work area complete with tools such as sandpaper, clippers, files, and paint for the kids to finalize their projects. The first project was to create a snowflake. This lesson plan tied to mathematics standards involving rotation, symmetry, and transformation along with using technology. The kids first plotted their designs on graph paper then used Fusion 360 to create the models. I was humbled to see how quickly they completed this project which had taken me a few days to master. Once the students were finished with this project, they could create an ornament either using a holiday shape or their name. As this was close to the holidays, many students decided to make ornaments to give as gifts. This was a perfect activity as it provided a natural deadline, and the incentive of creating something personal to give when you don’t yet have any disposal income was appealing to 7th and 8th graders.



One boy, in particular, was quite proud of his name ornament and shared with me that he made it for his grandpa. The teacher told me that of all the students in the school, he was the first to catch on to 3D modeling and was the first done with the snowflake. He went on to create a gift for his grandfather and his grandmother that was very intricate. The interesting thing about this young boy’s creation (and here’s the tie-in to the starfish) is that although he was in 8th grade, his demonstrated ability level was 2nd grade. He didn’t know his multiplication tables, refused to engage in the classroom, and could barely read. Yet when given the opportunity to use technology and 3D print a gift he came alive. In his regular 8th-grade math class, he was considered the “professional” by the other kids when they came to the computer lab. He willingly helped out, offering suggestions and telling kids what he did to produce certain shapes. His quiet pride shone from his eyes, as for once he was considered “smart” at something in school. The hope is that he will start seeing himself as someone who can be successful.

If only for this class and if only for this boy: “made a difference for that one…”

Examples of the holiday ornaments the kids made: