Using 3D printers in the classroom

James Hannam

A teacher for ten years, James has had many roles from IT support manager, to form tutor, senior leader and consortium lead. Renowned for his enthusiasm and love of technology, he has completed a wide and demanding range of projects including; leading a £500k+ multi institute project, overhauling IT infrastructure, delivering keynotes at BETT, overseeing curriculum development across the UK, and working with teacher training universities to prepare the new wave of teachers.

Now as a co-founder of the business LearnMaker, James enjoys enthusing staff and students, with a clear focus on impacting on teaching and learning with technology!

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3D printing is an exciting field, but how should schools approach it if they’re interested? James Hannam, experienced teacher and tech-innovator, discusses how he’s used 3D printers over the years, and looks at the options available to teachers.

After reading Peter Jones’ excellent article on 3D printing in the latest Innovate My School magazine, I wanted to offer my findings as a teacher (of all things geek). I am hoping that this piece will give you an informal starting point to the possibilities and considerations of 3D printing in the classroom.

First off, I think it is only right to explain where I am coming from… I have been a teacher (specialising in Design Technology / IT / Media) for ten years. I started as a Graphic Design teacher using CAMM 2 machines, and ended my career teaching alongside 3D printers and laser cutters.

"The plus side was that students would team up with each other, collaborate, share. The downside, as is typical, was internally assessing."

My ethos / thought process / drive / enthusiasm was initially based around wanting my students to have the best ‘commercial’ skillset that I could possibly give them. I trained as an Autodesk Inventor trainer, took every Adobe course going, and always focussed on the high end, commercial grade hardware and software. In this setup, I had 1:1 iMac workstations, dual-booted, all linked to the output devices, a fabulous network support team, and several great courses to use the tools with.

Fast forward to my next teaching post, and it could not have been at the further end of the scale. I had moved to a faculty that needed a complete overhaul, one that had been under-funded and under-resourced (both in finances and staff morale). During this period I reformed many of my ideas and motivations; I suppose you could say I had a realisation. I changed my view on ‘commercial skills’, and instead developed the idea of the ‘hackspace’. For the sake of time and your sanity, I shall keep it brief - I wanted students to have the ‘thinking’ skills to be able to tackle any problem, machine, piece of software, or project. Not just be awesome at Adobe Premiere!

So hopefully, you can see I have taught in the two extremes; a fully kitted-out setup, and a cheap and easy setup. Id like to impart some of my findings…

Some facts…

In 2013 the Department for Education (DfE) set aside £500k to enable 60 schools to purchase 3D printers, test them out in school, and report their findings. The conclusion, in my opinion, was common sense. The technology helped with computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), but itself was not a huge step up in learning,and good-quality upfront training was required from the outset. Using preloaded models gave instant gratification, but little impact on learning, and designing their own models relies on an understanding of CAD, not usually available outside of DT.

You can see the full report here, it makes for some genuinely good reading.

3 Course Meal…


During the first iteration (of the uber-setup), my team and I developed a course based around teaching and preaching. The typical ‘work through’ tutorials, getting students to complete set exercises. This worked well to start with, and the students ‘got it’ quite quickly. However, as more independant thought was required, especially at GCSE, students couldn’t apply their learning to their own projects. Using one CAD package (Autodesk Inventor 2010) meant it was easy to make tutorials for students, but it became time consuming rather quickly. What was missing were the ‘find it out’ skills, inquisitiveness, independence…all the difficult things to impart!


Moving to my second school, the courses I brought were restructured, project-based courses. Students would be shown the basic principles using a variety of CAD software, and then allowed to work on their chosen format. The plus side was that students would team up with each other, collaborate, share. The downside, as is typical, was internally assessing… one student would take multiple steps to complete a 3D object in, say, Rhino, but the task could be more simply done in Google Sketchup. Making sure staff, who possibly didn’t have backgrounds in CAD, could assess this proved tricky! Having a couple of software packages was great for me and my students; I learnt alongside them, they could see my approach to learning new software (perhaps a little chaotic, but they understood!). Staff not specialised in CAD opted to use the entry level programs, and had similar success where they showed students they too were learning. What became apparent, very quickly, was the “how did you do that, sir?” approach worked!

Pudding time…

The sweet spot (in relation to the software) came from looking at the multitude of CAD packages out there. In my second setup I didn’t have the budget to invest in the workstations, the software or the training. Therefore, I relied heavily on open-source software or freeware. Soon after this, Autodesk offered their software (in fact, now the whole suite) for free. Students were able to extend their learning onto these commercial platforms, and by using a few packages before hand, again ‘got it’ quickly.

From a software stance, I believe its key to expose students to a multitude of CAD packages. Yes, explain / demonstrate / teach the principles, but allow the flexibility to use their preferred choice… and don’t be too scared of relinquishing some control!

The hard bit: Hardware…

Looking over the variety of 3D printers and cutters I have used, there are some key things that need thinking of when a) purchasing, and b) using the kit….

Briefly (and on a side note), the way in which you purchase large items like printers or cutters is down to your / your school’s preference. I now would almost always opt to lease a device, rather than purchase. There are benefits to both sides, and I am sure people will comment on which outweighs the other. In my experience, the leasing option allows for upgrades or purchase options at the end of the lease, but importantly it makes it easier for budget / business managers to schedule the devices into their plans - I always found the ‘big burn’ each year would get smaller and smaller, being able to forecast payment and show longevity in a project certainly helped.

But which kit to get?

"The leasing option allows for upgrades or purchase options at the end of the lease, but importantly it makes it easier for budget / business managers to schedule the devices into their plans."

My starting point with this was simple: get the kit in, get it in front of my staff and students, play until it breaks (not actually breaks, but you get the point!). Next up, think about who will be using it - technician, staff, students? Ultimately if your technician doesn't like cleaning up or chipping away, dunking etc, this will change your choice of device!

What about time? How many users will be operating the printer? How long are your lessons? Have you the space to store a device? Will it be away from classes to avoid the noise / smell / heat / fiddle factor? The majority of 3D printers will take a while to deliver their goods; even low-resolution or small prints require some kind of setup time and management at the end (cleaning off, blowing, cooling, dipping, finishing). All these again, affect your choice.
From my experiences, the powder-based printers (like the ZCorp models) were excellent, as they allowed us to fill the print bed with objects and print them (literally on top of each other) without wasting time or materials - YouTube ‘ZCorp’ and you will see what I mean! The difficulty is ‘curing’ the products once printed so they withstand use, and cleaning the parts from all the powder residue!

What I would call ‘reel’ based 3D printers are excellent for the hobbyist, or where you can have the device running in the background. 3D printers like the ‘Makerbot’ have been popular as they have simple interfaces, access to an online library of objects and a rather nice community. My issue is really that they take a large time to print multiple objects onto the bed.

Liquid resin printers appeal to me as they can be relatively quick, print in materials that allow for a lot more usability outside of the classroom, and are easy to manage. The downside is the processing afterwards, and the use of liquid resin in the workshop (always producing a sharp intake of breath!) My particular favourite, although I have never had one in a workshop, is the FormLabs Form1 (originally a kickstarter project that has gone from strength-to-strength). Their unique approach, and design of the printer really makes it stand out in a classroom!

All the above are off-the-shelf solutions, and although a ‘reel’ based system, The Mendel Reprap printers could be worth looking at if you have a STEM club. They are the open-source version of Makerbot. You can build your own system, choose the materials and size etc. A word of warning though; they are really really tricky to build and run… they do require some tinkering, but the rewards and the relatively low cost could outweigh the pain.

Rounding Up!

I have found that to make these types of devices work in the classroom you have to plan heavily for them. Not just curriculum, but training. In fact, I would say start with the training…. then move onto the planning and then the buying! I would suggest playing with as many of them as possible, get them in your workshop or classroom, involve the students - and the budget holders! Also, take a good look at why you want / need one. I had some great success in my later school with sending work off to get professionally 3D-printed when I hit upon a small one time pot of gifted and talented (G&T) money for a student. He ended up having a video showing his work being printed and evaluated by the company. Possibly not as enriching as having it print in front of his eyes, but maybe less tedious than watching it print for 5 hours…

I hope that this has been some help, and certainly a starting point for more conversations! If you would like any more information, to chat, ask more questions please comment below or get in touch with me on Twitter!

Have you used 3D printers in school? Share your comments below.

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