George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

What the Heck Is All the Whoop-Dee-Do With 3D Printing?

3D printing can attract a variety of students, those interested in robotics and those who are interested in industrial tech, making learning more meaningful because they can design with a tangible purpose.

February 11, 2016
Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

So it seems I'm writing a blog post series. In my first one -- What the Heck Is Project-Based Learning? -- I explored the simple elevator speech and basic elements that describe a PBL unit. In my second post in this series -- What the Heck is OER? -- I developed criteria to determine the value of all the free online stuff that's out there for educators. So for this, let's take a look at all the current hoopla surrounding 3D printing.

When I first saw a 3D printer at the CUE conference years back, I shook my head in confusion. "Well, here's a fad to cater to those with expendable STEM funds," I said to myself. The things were clunky, huge, and seemingly purposeless. Many of the devices looked like they had been picked up by Jawas on the deserts of Tatooine -- too industrial to attract the masses. I walked away from the technology confident that people would wake up and smell the filament.

Getting on Board With It

Now, I've never been one to caress a new Apple product in admiration of its beauty. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't even know how to change a tire. I've always been a Shakespeare geek, moved to tears by words, and moved to tears by having to hang a leveled picture in my hallway.

Cut to three years later, and I have my first 3D printer and have just pitched my district for four more for next year. My friends, I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

This year, half of my workday is in my classroom, and the other half is helping teachers with curriculum development, educational technology, and project-based learning. My job is to develop new ways to think of solutions to long-term problems. That also means I've been given new technologies to learn and mull over.

I got my current printer to see what the fuss was all about. A few students who wanted to learn with me went through the tutorials with me, read the manual, and soon began printing gadgets and little inventions based on drawings and sketches designed using Tinkercad, an online cad software. 

Until a few months ago, I didn’t know what cad meant either. Incidentally, it stands for Computer Assisted Design, a fancy-schmancy term for drawing three-dimensionally online. The kids totally geek out over it.  But don't worry, you don't have to be an expert; students can learn the fundamentals themselves really quickly via tutorials or just simply through playing with it."

I cannot describe the satisfaction both the students and I felt when seeing an object from their brain appear on the heated bed of the machine before them. Thirty-six students were all crowded around the printer during that first lunchtime, and every time since, watching in awe as each layer built upon itself. The machine brought to life the item that, prior to that moment, had only lived within the imagination of a middle school student. 

I bet I could sell tickets to watch the thing print, that's how mesmerizing it is. I could build bleachers in my classroom like in the film Field of Dreams because it's true: If you build it, they will come (and eat their lunch, too).

It was like seeing writing for the first time and realizing there was a story in all of those squiggles of black ink. With each item printed, there was a story to tell or thought process to unearth, and the process itself brought a different level of communication out of students. Making, as it turns out, can be used to leverage communication.

Why I'm a 3D Convert

There are some students who use their imaginations to construct words that build meaning, much like the filaments of a 3D printer might build an item. Then, there are students who need to see tools in action, who need to touch something, see something, and experience something in order to trigger their language. And I wonder if those students are far more frequent than we have realized.

I think that's what 3D printing has the potential to do. It certainly has generated excitement, and while some of it might be the newness of the technology, I also see 3D printing as uniquely effective. Here are reasons why:
  • It's one of the first technological tools that have appeared in our current students' lifetime, and their discoveries have become a part of its evolution into a more mainstream tool.
  • It helps to reach a student that has felt disconnected from school since industrial tech classes (shop) began to disappear, and it updates those skills to the 21st century.
  • It enables students towards a more concrete tier on Bloom's taxonomy chart. Making helps fill the gap between concrete thinking and abstract thinking. It helps fire neurons that have not been stimulated by standardized education.
  • It attracts a variety of students, those interested in robotics and those who are interested in industrial tech.
  • It makes learning more meaningful because they can design with a tangible purpose. Let's face it; there are students who need that level of concreteness to understand purpose. The question of "why do we have to learn this?" is answered in the product produced.
  • It's cross-curricular, bringing in mathematical design, art, science, and informational reading and writing.
  • It helps them see beyond themselves. The making community has embraced activism.
  • It puts teachers and students on the same learning curve. We are hand-in-hand in this journey.

It Still Has a Ways to Go

Of course, 3D printers, and the universe that supports them, do have a ways to go before being as accessible as we'd all like. While experts are open and generous with their knowledge, many answers are still too technical to be embraced by the many. Some printers are more "plug-and-print" than others. Some are still too overpriced for educational purposes.

And let's face it, teachers already have a lot going on. This adds a big heapin' scoop of new-thing-to-learn to any teachers' overflowing plate. So the learning curve can be daunting.

But it'll happen. Science fiction, after all, inspires science. We've seen replication technology in everything from Star Trek to Logan's Run. It's on its way, and teachers and students can have a hand in developing the user-friendliness of this technology.

In my classroom, students have named various elements. The sign on the door reads Mor-Door, my interactive whiteboard is called Albus Dumbleboard, and the computer cart is Kart-niss Everdeen. And while I don't yet have a name for my 3D printer, I have a list of candidates that students have submitted sitting on my desk right now.

There is no doubt that this tool has inspired them. And maybe for this generation of students, the technology isn't just a tool, but a key component to making their learning meaningful.

How do you see yourself using this technology? What device are you currently using? Please share in the comments section below. And, more importantly, what do you think I should name my 3D printer?

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Technology Integration
  • Creativity
  • Curriculum Planning

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.