3D printing in the classroom

Why I use 3D printing in the classroom (and why you should too!)

Grace Bennett, a middle school teacher from Brooklyn, shares why teachers should get started with 3D printing.

I became a teacher in the New York City public school system after leaving a career in science. My goal was to help inspire our youth to understand the science that makes the universe tick. I was so excited to share my background as a doctoral level researcher and was sure my expertise would leave my students hanging on my every word.  As it turns out, kids don’t love listening to adults talk! Go figure.

I quickly learned that if we want them to learn, they have to be engaged. That doesn’t mean putting on a show for them, it means kids like to be the ones in control of their learning. Sure, they appreciate having the help of someone that knows what they are talking about, but our students, especially those that have not grown up with consistent messaging about the importance of college, and studying, and extra-curriculars, need interesting tasks that are challenging (but not too challenging) to give them confidence that they can and will learn on their own.

This is where 3D printing comes in.  When I first learned about 3D printing I immediately wanted to get a printer for my classroom but I wasn’t really sure what I would use it to do.  I had witnessed the positive effect of technology on student engagement and predicted a great possibility in utilizing this technology due to the creative potential of being able to create almost anything.

While 3D printing is not new to designers, engineers and other professionals in need of rapid prototyping tools, it is still a new and exciting technology for our students. When introduced with all the potential applications of its use, it is amazing to see the collective shift in the faces of kids as they ask, “So, I can basically make anything I want?!”. The answer is yes. With 3D printing, the only limit is your imagination.

Once it enters the room, there is a transition in students from being content to watch the machine run, to wanting to make their own designs, to being able to make and troubleshoot their designs, to being able to help their peers and ultimately to make something useful.

It is an empowering technology that I have seen implemented in Latin classes to build models of ancient cities, in science classrooms to build truss bridges, in art classes to make characters of the alphabet, in self-contained special education classes to make animal hybrids, in literacy classes to make a heart-rate monitor that is meant to help Romeo make more rational decisions, and in shop classes to make wheels and trucks for a custom skateboard.

Please see some examples below:

3D designed truss bridge (not actually used to be printed. 3D printing software is also useful for designing physical models before they are built with commonly found goods like toothpicks):

turag bridge deck

Hybrid animal created in a self-contained special education class learning about genetically modified organisms.  The hybrids were given the best attributes of different animals for a specific habitat:

Hybrid animal

Passion projects made in a technology course by middle school students.  A hover-board and energy source for a diorama of a video game scene:

energy source for a diorama of a video game

A project from a student at Lane Tech utilizing many maker tools, featuring 3D printed trucks and wheels:


In my middle school STEM(a) elective course, students start with basic projects to get to know the nuts and bolts of the programs they use to create their designs. I start students off with a pennant template I have designed with Tinkercad that students then customize to represent who they are.  Once they have printed their designs, students can paint and decorate their pennants further until we have class sets that can be hung around the room. I got this idea from an educator forum organized by NYC teachers interested in using 3D printing in their classrooms.

To get started, students are taught directly how to

  1. manipulate shapes by stretching, shrinking or cutting in half, etc.

  2. use the measurement tool to get precise sizes

  3. move and place shapes in the workspace

  4. merge and align objects.

Everything else they teach themselves through tutorials on an as-needed basis. I felt I had a classroom-ready proficiency with these tasks after only about an hour of completing the online tutorials on Tinkercad (That’s meant to be a testament to how easy the software is to use, not my tech-savviness!).

I find that this activity prepares students to take on design challenges where they can solve real-world problems, both small and large like this one, taken from the PBS learning media website where students design their own tangle-free headphone holder.

So who should use 3D printing in their classroom?  Anyone looking for a great way to bring some joy to your classroom, engage your students in learning, teach the value of planning and brainstorming, research, troubleshooting, collaborating, digital literacy, presentation skills and so much more.  

If you are not sure how to get started, talk to some of your colleagues. Maybe you could strengthen some of the bonds with your coworkers by trying to plan a cross-curricular project, or working on a grant application to obtain a machine that can be shared within a department. It’s not as intimidating as it seems, and with companies popping up all over with starter models under $500 they aren’t as far out of reach as we think they are. So what are you waiting for? Get printing!