As 3D printers become increasingly affordable and accessible, their adoption is starting to accelerate in a wide range of industries, including education, where they can offer a number of benefits.
- 3D printing in education
- The benefits of 3D printing
- Preparing students for the future
- Fostering an inclusive classroom environment
- Closing thoughts
3D printing technology has advanced considerably over the years, finding a wide range of useful applications in many different fields. The manufacturing industry was among the first to fully experience the benefits of 3D printing technology, which completely revolutionised the manufacturing process. This innovative technology, which is also referred to as additive manufacturing, is now widely used to produce automotive and aeroplane parts, prosthetic limbs, and even medications. While early 3D printers were extremely expensive and difficult to operate, which severely restricted their usefulness, that is slowly starting to change with 3D printers becoming increasingly affordable and accessible. It’s estimated that the cost of 3D printers has dropped by approximately 30 per cent over the last decade. Today, you can find personal 3D printers for as little as $250, while hobbyist 3D printers will set you back anywhere between $300 and $1,500. With 3D printers also becoming much easier to use, it’s no surprise that they have recently seen more widespread adoption in industries other than manufacturing. One of the sectors that are becoming increasingly enamoured with 3D printing is education.
3D printing in education
So, how exactly can 3D printing be used in the classroom? One of the most notable features of 3D printing technology is its versatility, which makes it equally suitable for primary, secondary, and higher education. It can also be used in just about any academic discipline, as well as in both in-person and remote settings. For instance, history students can use 3D printing to produce replicas of important historical artefacts, which they may never be able to hold in their hands otherwise. Geography students can use it to create 3D topography, demographic, or population maps, changing the way they learn about these concepts. The technology can also benefit biology and chemistry students, who can use it to produce 3D models of molecules, cells, organs, or viruses. And their maths-focused peers can use the tech to print various problems to solve in class, such as city infrastructural design challenges.
According to a recent survey conducted by MakerBot, which included more than 1000 education professionals from over 60 countries in the world, 57 per cent of educators say that they used 3D printing for student-designed prototypes for problem-based learning projects. And 36 per cent of respondents say that they used it to increase student engagement by printing parts for specific lessons. “For years, we have seen the power of 3D printing used to elevate student learning and development in the classroom. As schools look to bridge the skills gap in today’s workforce, building students’ critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills will be increasingly important”, says Nadav Goshen, the CEO of MakerBot. “Over the past year, educators took 3D printing one step further, extending its capabilities to support remote education to keep students challenged, collaborative, and – most importantly – engaged”.
The benefits of 3D printing
When used properly, 3D printing technology can provide a wide range of benefits. Most notably, it helps create a hands-on learning environment that makes learning more fun and engaging. This in turn encourages student participation and, consequently, helps them learn better and facilitates real-world understanding. After all, there is only so much you can learn about a particular scientific concept by reading about it in a textbook or watching a slide or a video. By placing 3D-printed objects in students’ hands and allowing them to touch and physically inspect them, 3D printing enables students to approach a specific problem from a new perspective and gain a better understanding of how things work. That way, instead of being passive recipients of information, which is usually the case in traditional educational methods, students become active participants in their own learning. 3D printing also helps promote creativity by enabling students to design their own 3D objects and see their ideas come to life. This can also help spark students’ interest in certain fields and nurture a whole new generation of future designers and engineers. Furthermore, by taking a particular project from an abstract idea all the way to the final, 3D-printed object, students can gain valuable hands-on experience and significantly improve their problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
Preparing students for the future
At Dunwoody College of Technology, 3D printing is an integral part of the Engineering Drafting & Design programme, enabling students enrolled in the course to gain practical, high-demand skills. During the first year, students spend most of their time learning the basics of blueprint reading and 3D design software, before they move on to using 3D printing to solve real-world design problems and create new products, which takes place in the second year. During this period, students learn how 3D printing can help streamline various stages of the product development process. For instance, one of the projects requires students to design new golf putters that are in line with the strict parameters of the United States Golf Association. “Without a 3D printer, the lesson would have to be executed using hand-cut wood models”, explains Alex Wong, the engineering, drafting and design instructor. “3D printing accelerates the lesson, focusing students on the design and engineering, rather than personal craftsmanship. And students can use more complex geometry and curves because they are not limited to what they can do with subtractive methods and hand tools”. This enables students to gain valuable skills like problem solving and critical thinking, which significantly increases their chances of finding employment after graduation.
Fostering an inclusive classroom environment
Following two and a half years of research and development, the Department of Education in New South Wales, Australia recently unveiled a new library of 3D printing learning resources designed specifically for students who are blind or have low vision. The library features more than 70 different 3D models, such as tactile globes or components of the brain, all of which are aligned with the curriculum. “This is incredible and innovative work by our inclusion specialists. 3D prints of human anatomy are making learning biology easier for students with a vision impairment who would traditionally have used simpler raised line diagrams to help build understanding in the course”, says Sarah Mitchell, minister of education and early learning. However, it’s not just students with visual impairments who can benefit from such learning resources. According to Mitchell, the models were received well by all students, who demonstrated a notable increase in their engagement levels.
Another interesting example of how 3D printing technology can help create a more inclusive learning environment comes from the United States, where students at Coal Ridge High School used 3D printers to fix inaccuracies in the school’s braille system. The project was spearheaded by first-year student Olivia Byman, who herself has limited vision out of her right eye due to a brain tumour. After noticing incorrect spelling and punctuation in braille signs placed around the school, Byman contacted the administration, which promised to resolve the issue. She was then paired with senior student Conner Harte, who used the school’s 3D printers to make new braille signs. First, he designed the plaques in a 3D design programme called SketchUp and then used an open-source software to convert the text directly into braille. “Being able to support (the visually impaired) and being able to make their student life even just a little bit easier is a really good thing”, says Harte.
While exorbitant costs and steep learning curves initially restricted its use primarily to the manufacturing industry, 3D printing technology has become much more affordable and accessible in recent years. This helped increase its popularity and expand potential applications to a wide range of sectors, including education. Today, 3D printers have become a rather common sight in classrooms around the world, helping to make the learning process more fun and engaging for students, facilitating the development of valuable real-world skills, and sparking students’ interest in STEM-related fields. As more and more educators become aware of the benefits this innovative technology can bring, 3D printing technology is set to become an integral part of the learning process, transforming the way students learn about various concepts.