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3D printing really does sound more like a plot point in a science fiction film than an implementable educational tool, but it’s swiftly becoming an accessible option to educators everywhere. In fact, MakerBot, a leading manufacturer of 3D printers, has recently announced the MakerBot academy, which is seeking individual investors to fund an initiative to get 3D printers into every public school in the United States. Other 3D printing start-ups have followed in other parts of the world as well.
In short, 3D printing is coming to a school near you, probably more quickly than you could have anticipated. So how can 3D printing become the new, universal educational technology tool? Isn’t it used for medical research or engineering tasks?
Well, yes and no. 3D printing has most definitely been a breakthrough in medical and engineering technology, allowing doctors to recreate biological material for surgical use and engineers to create complex building materials using additive technology. However, 3D printers can also be used to teach design, technology, and inventive thinking in addition to being used as a way to assist teachers by making hands-on tools more easily accessible.
Design and Technology Uses
Technology and design classes are an easy start for schools hoping to implement a 3D printer. Students in these classes are often already using the design programs required by the 3D printer and teachers in these courses have a clearer understanding of how the 3D printer supplements their existing curriculum. It’s an easy leap for students who have designed something digitally to want to see it created in a 3D model. 3D printers allow this to happen, offering students the ability to more effectively evaluate and critique their own designs.
Implementing Inventive Thinkin
Design and technology classes are absolutely not the only areas where 3D printing can make a very real difference in education. On an abstract level, bridging the gap between what a student imagines and the reality of a tangible object through 3D printing can awaken the innovative, problem-solving thinking that teachers strive to encourage at all levels of education.
One Massachusetts teacher is using the experimental nature of 3D printing in schools to drive the experimental brilliance of his students. Though the technology can seem out of reach for lower grade students, the idea of seeing a problem and designing a solution is not. His students have tried, and sometimes failed, to develop solutions to lever and pulley systems and bridge trusses, while he has developed a mechanical hand for a former student who wanted to ride a bike and play football with his friends.
As Mr. Sullivan said, “Students are coming to me with question after question and idea after idea…They are seeing a connection to our experimentation and real life solutions.” Isn’t that exactly what we strive to achieve with our students? 3D printing is one way to achieve it.
Creating Hands-on Tools for Teaching
Imagine a biology class where students, struggling to understand how an organ system works, can put their hands on scale models printed for them specifically. What about an anatomy and physiology course where students could learn bone structure by actually examining small models of an entire skeleton? Imagine if those manipulatives were accessible to teachers relatively quickly and for an affordable price—all because of a 3D printer.
While 3D printing offers great opportunity for students to examine the world around them and propose solutions, it offers similar opportunities for teachers as well. It’s not always apparent to even the most seasoned educator what a particular class might have trouble with, and investing money in manipulatives that may not be needed can be a waste of a tight budget.
With a 3D printer available to teachers, instructional materials can be printed when needed and adapted specifically to a class’s needs. Blocks to use for counting, estimation, or multiplication in lower grades can be easily produced on site, eliminating costly shipping. Upper grades need to see what the Globe Theatre really looked like to get a sense of how Shakespeare adapted his plays for that venue? A scale model can be produced using a 3D printer. The options are endless, with a little imagination, and so are the teaching opportunities.
Though 3D printing may seem like technology that belongs in the distant future, it is most assuredly coming to schools near you. 3D printing offers schools and educators the opportunity to broaden their horizons using the most up-to-date technology available and students the opportunity to be limited only by their imagination.