3D printers in the classroom: Moon landing in baby steps

Maker's Red Box 2020. 10. 12. 10:38

3D printers have been popping up in schools across the globe for years, but most educators still struggle to incorporate the technology in the curriculum. Although the benefits can be huge, using 3D printing in education requires much more than a user-friendly desktop printer and a group of enthusiastic teachers. At Maker’s Red Box, we’ve helped thousands of students and teachers find the best way to approach and benefit from 3D printing – here’s what we’ve learned.

3D printing with Maker's Red Box: how to proceed after the first excitement wears off

3D printers are becoming more than just the latest trend, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As the first wave hit, 3D printing proved a lifesaver in shortening production chains and providing much-needed medical supplies that were otherwise unavailable. The technology is transforming several areas of production where customization is key, from prosthetics to running shoes. It can help inventors, engineers and designers test their products more efficiently by making prototyping faster, cheaper and easier. And it can also help schools prepare children for future jobs and teach indispensable skills.

Houston, we have a problem: how to overcome 3D printing challenges

As 3D printers in the classroom are still relatively new, teachers often have a hard time figuring out what to do with them. After the excitement of printing a couple of downloadable templates wears off, the head-scratching begins. Printing a cool superhero figurine to wow students might sound like a good idea, but it takes an excruciatingly long time and costs a lot. In case you decide to improvise and print whatever comes to your mind, prepare to spend hours choosing one of the gazillion CAD software out there and learning 3D design first.

A word to the wise: looking for the right device, software, method and model usually takes much more time than the actual work itself.

Printing parts of the city of the future

Rewarding milestones: why 3D printers make students work harder

Students can use 3D printers to create amazing things and solve everyday problems they care about, but it takes time and effort. Contrary to popular belief, however, children don’t shy away from challenges. You just have to find a way to keep them motivated – and gradually increase the difficulty of tasks. Creating rewarding milestones from printing a simple template to building their own inventions might be a great start.

Why not use the power of storytelling to make them feel like they’ve just set foot on the Moon? This gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride which is crucial both at the beginning and for moving forward.

In our City of the Future curriculum, for example, kids can use their creativity to design the city they would like to live in 80-100 years from now. After a brainstorming session on the most pressing issues cities face today, they build the prototypes of possible solutions. While working on their own projects, they first get exposed to 3D printing when creating lamp covers for the city’s micro:Bit controlled streetlamps. The templates are pre-designed and the tiny objects take only 15 minutes to print, plus they’re super inexpensive. Not to mention that kids can use them right away and get rewarded for their efforts: the lamps automatically turn on when the light in the room goes off.

Kids working with professional CAD software

Go pro: choose a professional software to teach 3D printing

After their first successful attempts at 3D printing, kids are ready to create their own designs. Tinkercad is a great tool for teaching them the basics: the easy-to-use 3D CAD design tool was developed for the very purpose of making 3D design more accessible. A couple of minutes is all it takes for kids to understand how it works and start designing. That said, teaching them how to use a professional CAD software like Fusion360 straight away might be an even better idea. They can use it for much more than school assignments which makes the learning process all the more motivating.

Professional CAD software are all the same in one respect: they allow you to design anything from a toothpick to a spaceship. The possibilities are endless: kids can see themselves as the engineers of the electric cars of the future, doctors printing human organs or designers who specialize in creating custom footwear. After designing a circle, they’ll want to make a wheel, then a running gear. And after that? Well, they might decide in an engineering class at uni.

“Building their own designs using a 3D printer first makes children feel like they’ve done something cool for themselves,” says Peter Fuchs, head of development at Maker’s Red Box.

But they soon realize they can also do cool things for others, like designing and creating things that solve real problems people have. This might help them find their place in the world and envision a bright future. That’s what we’d like to encourage them to do with our curriculums.

By the time kids assemble the city of the future, they have learned the basics of 2D and 3D design, 3D printing, hardware programming, laser cutting and soldering

STEAM and beyond: why 3D printing is a gateway to 21st-century skills

Creating and assembling moving mechanical parts can be pretty exciting for an 11-year-old. Seeing how enthusiastic they get making Mars rovers with gears as part of our Green Engineers curriculum is something right out of a Seymour Papert book. The creator of constructionist pedagogy was fascinated by gears as a child, which later helped him redefine learning as an active process of making. Discovering principles of science and engineering through actively creating, as opposed to passively consuming information, is much more rewarding for kids.

3D printers can help educators a great deal in making Papert’s vision a reality. What we’ve learned over 5-plus years of experimenting is that they work best when used in combination with other technologies like hand tools, microcontrollers, soldering stations and laser cutters. Ideally, by the time students get to printing lamp covers, they’ve successfully programmed microcontrollers, soldered circuits and created streets using a laser cutter. Mixing these technologies, there’ll always be a milestone to celebrate. Plus, kids will have a bigger and better toolset for turning their ideas into functioning objects.

And it’s not only STEAM subjects they’ll be better at.

If these technologies are taught with matching soft skills, students can also improve their problem solving, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and entrepreneurship competencies.

Download our eBook on maker education!

We’d love to share the insight we have gained in the past five years experimenting with it. Read Unleash the power of maker education: a guide for teachers. The English language ebook contains ten questions about getting started with maker education, all answered.