Three years ago I was introduced to the world of 3D printing. I was shown several machines and how an individual machine was being used in schools to inspire students to make and create. Of course, like every other new tech tool, I was impressed. However, I had my doubts as I thought it was just a gimmick. How can something used in isolation help engage students in real learning.
18 months ago I moved to my current school to a role in the Middle School Design team, working closely with the Innovation center and with students in grades 6-9. As part of the design curriculum, we taught 3D printing to our 7th-grade students. Long story short, the unit did not change my mindset on 3D printing being a gimmick as students showed very little interest or desire to 3D print as the process of getting there was too time-consuming.
Image Source: Stamford American International School
In July I started my new job in the same school, Head of Educational Technology (K-12). An exciting role, working with students and teachers across our school with the intention of enhancing learning through effective technology integration linked to pedagogy. One of the elements of this job is to work closely with the team in our Innovation Center. Working in this space immediately changed my mindset about the power of 3D printing.
3D printing IS a powerful learning tool! I have seen it now firsthand! It can empower learners as a piece of the design process by allowing them to create in a way that has never been possible before. Students can follow a process of identifying a problem, researching and designing a solution with the intention of creating a prototype or model in 3D printed form.
The actual print is a VERY small part of the process. When done well, the design process allows students to access learning in a very different way. Students in my school design using 123D Design and AutoCAD and they print on our 3D Printers (predominantly MakerBots) to demonstrate a physical prototype of a solution to their problem. It brings a design to life.
I have asked Thomas Tran, the Director of the Innovation Center at my school to help contribute to this discussion and his thoughts are below:
3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) is one of many new technologies touted for its process in creating accurate models to realize one’s ideas, but is it necessary or appropriate in education? As a practicing designer, I must say “no, not yet”. In industry, 3D printing is largely used in a prototypical manner and not necessarily in production due to efficiency in time, flaws in the process, and so forth. Similarly, these issues translate into education settings and if anything, is maximized ten fold due to the unfamiliarity of a process professionals have trained in for years.
Throughout a school day, it’s likely you may only be able to do 2-3 prints depending on the size of models requested and the number of printers a school may have (something the size of your fist could take 6 hrs. of printing). In addition, someone will need to monitor the print consistently, especially dependent on the machines purchased (which likely are hobbyist machines vs. machines with beneficial features $$$). And as students are learning 3D modeling, models may not necessarily be created correctly, requiring an individual to scrub files prior to preparing them for printing. Those are only some of the issues that make 3D printing in terms of efficiency, inappropriate in educational settings.
BUT as education needs to move to expose students to more opportunities and methods and assist them in realizing their ideas it is still absolutely crucial to consider this new tech…so how does it become appropriate? It becomes so with a focus on process and understanding of expectation. Below are a few thoughts to consider.
3D printing is not as important as 3D modeling. Largely 3D modeling is not of focus to many students, as their desire is around the result. Establish an understanding that modeling is the key to successful 3D prints and their understanding in this process is how you can fully maximize the tool. The printer itself is not the skill, but the process of modeling is and can add an extra dimension to your creativity and ability to see.
3D modeling does not need to start with CAD (computer aided design) or the printer. Start the modeling skills by breaking down images into parts and pieces as if you must assemble it by common shapes. Have students write down how they may add, subtract, round shapes to meet the model they are looking to make (all processes to CAD). You may start with sketches understanding different sides of things and then slowly move into sculpture whether with clay or other materials such as foam. The additive process is what you want students to understand. Establish the modeling mindsets and terminologies and it will help translate to 3D modeling on CAD related software.
Leverage your student’s desires. The end result of having a 3D print is definitely cool. It is a double-edged sword, as it may push students to skim pass important processes, but use this desire to your advantage. Create projects that allow them to make what they want, but put a twist on it so that they are required to use some of the various methods in modeling and establish information crucial to printing. Over time they may not realize it, but they will develop the skills because they have continuously used them without knowing.
An example of a project is a pencil topper. Allow students to create a pencil topper design of their choice (characters, shapes, figures, etc.) of some complexity, but being a pencil topper they must obviously consider size and accurate measurements to creating a hole for the pencil. This will run them through measurement tools, subtraction tools (for the hole), allow a discussion around tolerances, and the general process of making the thing they want will take them through the additive tools, scaling functions, moving, aligning, etc.
You don’t need to 3D model/print everything. If a student designed a Bluetooth earbud that attaches to glasses, first thought would be to model the entirety of the product. But remember, we are only making prototypes. The important aspect of their design was how it attaches to a pair of glasses, so this ‘part’ may be all that needs to be modeled. An old pair of earbuds can serve the case for the remaining half of prototype, whereas they can draw an image representing the final product to be sold and the model serving as a representation. Utilize other things and model to them. It is more appropriate to model/print only details of things vs. the entirety of it (such as buttons to devices). This may cut time to printing and allow students to create in more multi-skilled methods. The only time it may be appropriate to model an entire project would be if you were 3D rendering the model (which is a whole different discussion).
Peer to peer support is important. Some students will ‘get it’ quicker than others. Have them help and grow their confidence. This in return will allow you to push those students to more complex functions which may excite them and others in terms of what they can make and others can see be made.
Align it to your learning goals/activities. Understand what this technology may allow you to do (realize ideas). When used alone it is limiting, but when paired with some learning activity (whether math, writing, arts, etc.) it may be highly beneficial.
An example in our school relates to our EAL students. For a story writing assignment as an activity to be explored, you can have those students who are practicing English write a full fledge description of their characters. This can then be sent to a 3D modeling expert (student) to be made and printed to provide that extra excitement to these EAL students…but remember, the 3D printing was not the focus, it was the descriptive writing process.
While this is just a few thoughts, it is a crucial mindset to understand and have if you may want to consider 3D printing at your school. If we think about 3D modeling excluding the idea of the 3D printer, the process of hand working techniques and skills are just as beneficial and if not more crucial than CAD related skills. Establish the foundation and when you may feel confident in exploring CAD and 3D printing, all the ground work has been laid where students and others understand the procedures, expectations, appropriateness of why, how, and when to use 3D modeling and printing.
Stay tuned for more from the Innovation Center at Stamford American Int’l School.