3D printers in the classroom? Yes please!

Richard Bacon

Richard Bacon has many years of experience in education having worked as a senior lecturer in university delivering computer science and digital graphic design applications, and also as a specialist teacher of IT related subjects in schools and colleges. He is now working to help teachers embrace and deploy the exciting technology of 3D printing across the curriculum, and is promoting 3D modelling and design within schools to enthuse and engage our young learners by using the amazing possibilities of rapid visualisation and prototyping that these printers make possible.

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Capturing the attention of a classroom full of over-zealous students and making them want to learn more about your ‘pet subject’ is often something of a challenge and a source of frustration to all concerned, so any prop or piece of technology that helps is usually welcomed with open arms by the hard pressed class tutor. More often than not, however, such magical enablers have been hard to come by. This (in my experience, anyway) often leads to countless wasted hours of futile planning and crafting followed inevitably by the sullen after school destruction of exercise sheets, Powerpoint slide-shows and lesson notes all destined for that every growing bin that is usually filed as ‘My Old Lesson Plans’.

"3D printers are received by pretty much every student, young and old, with amazement, interest and a desire to learn more!"

Well fellow educators, we may have a new friend in our arsenal. The arrival of a new generation of small, desktop sized and reasonably-priced additive manufacturing machines (or, as we like to call them these days 3D Printers) could re-kindle the fire of enthusiasm in our young learners’ bellies for all things STEM and beyond!

I have been lucky enough to deliver many lessons over the past few years using a variety of 3D printers. I can honestly say that on every occasion, the devices were received by pretty much every student, young and old (Primary through to University), with amazement, interest and a desire to learn more! Many of the teachers I speak to are equally impressed when they see a printer working for the first time but soon (after the initial awesomeness has faded), they ask ‘but how is it going to be of use to my classes?’.

Well, I have to say that with a little lateral thinking, these machines can add enthusiasm and purpose to many a subject area. For example, I’ve seen them usefully employed to print models of artefacts for the finale of history projects, with students claiming their very own ‘stone of henge’ for the construction of a diorama, designing interesting geometric shapes in mathematics ready to print as playground-cool jewellery, and of course, the inevitable I-made-a-robot keyrings!

Using the 3D software to create such models can be an issue, of course, as most computer-aided design packages, despite often being free for schools to use, are quite tricky to master. However, if they are included as part of the 3D modelling element into the Computing curriculum, it is entirely possible to give students enough of an experience in a few lessons to allow them to create interesting and fun projects to print. And to help this along there, are some great resources available to enable teachers to start 3D printing right ‘out of the box’. There is also access to free collections of thousands of models via the web, all ready to print, many of which can be customised online without the need for any 3D software at the user end at all.

Additionally there are other free resources that allow the capture of real life objects big and small on mobile phones or digital cameras which can be sent to the cloud for transforming into printable 3D models.

So, 3D printers in the classroom? I most definitely say “Yes please!”.

Do you use 3D printers in your school? Share your experiences below.

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