3D printing in the classroom

An ultimate educator's guide to 3D printing

  • Written by Lana Lozova
    Aug 3, 2016

3D printers open up a new world of possibilities in the classroom. Multi-disciplinary lessons combine core curricula with art and technology to showcase the student’s academic skills. We discussed the challenges and rewards of incorporating 3D printing in the classroom with Mark Peeters, a 3D print artist and Technology Director at Comstock Public Schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA. And today, we continue our conversation with Mark about his experience with 3D printing.

3D printing in the classroom: The challenges

Introducing 3D printing to the classroom isn’t always easy. You might think the biggest challenge is the lack of grade-level specific lessons ready for purchase or download, but Mark Peeters sees a greater challenge.

The main challenge to introducing design and 3D printing into the classroom is “Time”. Time is a precious commodity.

Annually teachers are faced with more educational standards than instructional time in which to teach them. It’s a balancing act to decide what receives time and what doesn’t make it into the lesson plan. Teachers must also spend training time learning the latest trendy teaching initiative. So, new lessons require personal learning time on the part of the teacher and they must fit into the existing instructional time budget.  In addition, teachers must have a deep understanding of the subjects they present and new technology takes them out of their comfort zone.  Unless they are already familiar with 3D design software, slicing software, and the actual 3D printer, they need time to learn.  

Bringing 3D printing to the classroom

Mark discovered the best solution to the time challenge is using a team approach to creating lessons. He usually starts with an existing lesson and develops what he calls a “3D enhanced project” or they start with multiple standards to be combined or standards that they want to teach in a deeper or more engaging way. This team approach is carried into instruction where team teaching is used for at least the first few times. This way teachers don’t have to be the expert on the technology right away.

One district’s approach to 3D printing in all grades

Mark thinks that 3D printing should be viewed as any other creative tool such as crayons or modeling clay. His district incorporated 3D printing into the classroom in all grades. For grades K-8, 3D printing was woven into existing core area curriculum so the printers are part of multi-disciplinary lessons. New lessons continue to be added. Here’s their approach.

K-3. At this age, the goal is to make 3D printing part of their everyday reality and less about the technology. Students create 2D designs with basic age-appropriate artwork software. Kids create something personal on the computer and see that design become a physical object to take home and share with their families.

Grades 4-6. openSCAD is introduced in 4th grade, which naturally incorporates math and programming. By the time they are in 5th and 6th grade, students use loops, variables, and data arrays to make complex shapes. Starting with 6th grade, students do their own slicing with Cura and run their own print jobs.

Grades 8-12. Once students are old enough to use the internet, they use online resources like Tinkercad. In high school 3D Design and Printing is offered to focus on 3D printing tech and software. Students use openSCAD, TinkerCad, MeshMixer, 123D Catch, Thingiverse, and various 2D programs too like InkScape and Paint.net.

Learning CAD design

Guidelines and resources for lessons with 3D printing

Mark’s experience crafting lessons for all grades had led him to identify a set of broad guidelines for developing successful lessons. He’s also identified some great resources.

  • Lessons should be open ended while still having clearly defined design constraints and goals.
  • Students will be creative and will see their own hand in the printed objects.
  • Lessons are tied to one or more existing core curriculum standards. 3D printing shouldn’t be the only outcome.
  • Age appropriate software is used, scaffolding when needed with templates or starter files.
  • Lessons build in complexity from grade to grade, reinforcing previous skills while introducing more tools and deeper ways of using existing tools.
  • It’s OK if the lesson is team taught by technology staff and teaching staff. It’s a huge treat for the tech staff who normally don’t get to work with kids and can help teaching staff get comfortable with the new technology. It’s good for kids to see adults working as a team since they are often asked to work in teams themselves.

Building an Ultimaker Original in the classroom

He finds that the best resources for creating lessons are teachers, product manuals, and the Ultimaker online forum. Mark brainstorms with teachers to decide what standards to cover and what the printed object will be. Then he chooses the best age-appropriate workflow and identifies what might need to be taught. He finds software documentation to be a great resource for creating templates for younger kids or streamlining production flow. Mark describes the Ultimaker forum as “a very active online forum filled with kind and generous users that I have turned to for help many times.” He makes it a point to tell others about his own struggles and how he gets help from the forum as an example of life-long learning and how to learn something that isn’t in a book.

The perfect classroom 3D printer

We asked Mark what he thinks makes a good 3D printer for the classroom and why he prefers the Ultimaker Original+. Here’s what he looks for in a 3D classroom printer.

  • Reliability. Machines should have low downtime and be end user serviceable.  When the printer isn’t happy, nobody is happy.
  • Precision and accuracy. Every kid deserves a good print of their model. The first print should be as good as the 500th.
  • Speed and build volume. When printing for a class of over 25 kids, you need to print several objects at a time.
  • PLA printing. You are printing in a closed environment around children. Non-toxic fumes and bio-degradable materials are a necessity.
  • Open-source. No limits on the depth of tinkering a student can do.

An Ultimaker Original+ in the classroom

The Ultimaker Original+ is a great printer for schools. It strikes a perfect balance between reliability, durability, and cost. It comes as a kit which is really nice because building the printer is extremely educational, fun and empowering.

Importance of open source

With an open source 3D printer, there will never be a student question that they or myself will not be allowed to get the answer to. An interested student can use the Ultimaker as an entry point to learn more about robotic controls, gcode language, stepper motor control, all the math that the firmware does to calculate accelerations of the tool path, how PID and PWM controls work, etc. The list goes on and on.

Benefits to the classroom and learning

The benefits of using 3D printing in the classroom are undeniable. According to Mark it lies in student engagement and ease in creating multidisciplinary lessons. Kids are more willing to play and experiment with concepts since they want to make a cool 3D printed objects.

Seeing a 3D printer in action is just fascinating

Affordable open source 3D printers change the educational process. A world of ideas and possibilities is opened to young and idea-filled minds. Students are exposed to cutting edge technology that doesn’t bust the budget and teachers have an exciting platform for building multidisciplinary lessons for all ages.