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STEM Teaching: Using 3D Printers for Your STEM Program

How 3D printers are moving classrooms

3D printers have revolutionized manufacturing. Companies use them to more efficiently make airplane parts, prosthetic limbs, and orthotics. In several years, it may be common for consumers to print customizable parts and objects at home—a practice that could potentially reduce waste, packaging, and pollution.

3D printing technology could also transform your classroom. Teachers successfully use 3D printing to complement Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and to integrate technology into non-tech related disciplines, such as history and language arts. Keep reading to learn why you may want to add a 3D printer to your teaching toolbox, and discover a handful of fun 3D–printer projects for elementary students.

From STEM to STEAM

Our educational system has a big task: prepare students to succeed in life. Increasingly, policy makers believe STEM is the best way to do that. STEM integrates engineering and technology into math and science curricula and attempts to replace teacher-led learning with an approach emphasizing discovery, exploratory learning, and problem-solving.

Why STEM? Technology dominates our daily lives and today's students need to be more scientifically and technologically literate. Many educators hope a greater focus on STEM curricula will help American high school students compete on the Program for International Assessment (PISA), a test that ranks 72 countries in the world in science, reading, and math. In 2015, the U.S. ranked 31st in math and 18th in science out of the 35 industrialized countries who participated.

STEM may also help American students better prepare for the increasingly technological 21st-century workforce. For instance, the biomedical engineering field is projected to grow 62 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Furthermore, educators hope the program will help the next generations become innovators who tackle complex environmental and societal challenges.

Recently, many schools have integrated arts into the STEM curricula to encourage more creative thinking and have rebranded their programs as Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM).

How to Use 3D Printers in the Classroom

3D printers allow users to design and create 3D objects. They're an amazing tool for STEM and STEAM classrooms because they provide hands-on lessons that integrate technology, engineering, math, art, and other subjects. Moreover, 3D-printing projects encourage creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving.

To print a 3D object, students use one of three ways to create a digital file.

  • If a 3D scanner is available, they scan and replicate something that exists.
  • They download a template of a pre-designed object.
  • They use a computer-aided design (CAD) modeling program to design an original object.

Once students produce a digital file, they send it to the printer, just as they would a document. Most 3D printers have a window, which allows students to watch as the printer creates the object, layer by layer, using a plastic filament.

Teaching STEM Subjects with 3D Printers

It's an incredibly powerful experience for kids to design an object, watch it print, and then hold it in their hands. T.J. Hendrickson, a technology and engineering teacher at a junior high school in Minnesota, writes that the process is deeply meaningful for his students, and it "changes how they see and understand the world." 3D printing makes students see themselves less as passive consumers of goods and more as creators who can improve the design of objects in the real world.

STEM and STEAM naturally fit with Project Based Learning (PBL), a teaching approach in which students integrate many disciplines (for instance science, art, and math) to tackle a complex classroom project. PBL emphasizes the four Cs: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. A well-designed 3D-printing project requires all four skills. Students must communicate and collaborate to create an original object together. In the process, they become more comfortable with trial and error and revision.

"Content without purpose is only trivia," writes teacher Steve Revington, in critique of teacher-led classroom learning. He promotes a learning model called Authentic Learning, which goes beyond project-based learning to engage students in solving real-world problems in their communities.

3D-printer projects can offer students the sort of authentic learning experiences Revington favors. Elementary students at STEM3 Academy in Los Angeles use a 3D printer to design and print useful items. They have created a case for tools, a charging holder for a smartphone, doorstops, and business card holders displaying the school's logo. In Scott County, Indiana, fifth graders used a 3D printer to create prosthetic hands for children in need.

Teachers note a side effect of providing students with authentic, student-led learning opportunities: Students are more engaged in learning. "I have zero behavior issues. My students are motivated. They want to print," Hendrickson writes.

"I have never seen technology that intrigues my students the way 3D printers do," writes Trevor Takayama, a technology teacher at a Massachusetts elementary school.

Getting Started with STEM Education Using 3D Printers

Are you excited to try 3D printing with your students? 3D printers have become more affordable and easier to use, making them viable for schools to attain. One printer can usually be used by multiple classes and departments.

3D printers currently range in price from about $300 to several thousand dollars. If you want a 3D scanner, you'll need to spend more to purchase a printer that includes a scanner. Alternatively, you can buy a stand-alone scanner. You'll also need a handful of supplies, which together cost approximately $150, including:

  • PLA filament in multiple colors
  • Gallon zipper bags to store filament
  • 3-inch blue painter's tape to print on
  • A scraper to remove prints off the printer bed
  • Isopropyl alcohol spray to clean the tape
  • Tweezers to remove melted plastic strands
  • Spring-loaded wire cutters to cut off excess plastic
  • A wiping cloth

If your school's technology budget is insufficient, investigate grants and fundraising opportunities, or consider a crowd funding campaign using DonorsChoose.org.

Research printers to decide which one best suits your school's budget and needs. Look for one that uses polylactic acid (PLA) filament, which is biodegradable, relatively safe, and non-toxic. Check user forums to learn about other teachers' experiences with different printers. Make sure the company that makes your printer offers good tech support.

Once you've received your new printer, you'll need to set it up and learn to use it. If a picture's worth a thousand words, a video can be worth a million. Fortunately, many companies provide online video tutorials, and you can find hundreds of how-to videos on YouTube.

Experiment with different CAD modeling programs to discover which one you like best. Check online for free, open-source programs; Tinkercad and BlocksCAD are both user-friendly for elementary-age kids.

Once you familiarize yourself with your printer and software, it's time to introduce it to your students. You can find a collection of projects and lesson plans for students of all ages at thingiverse.com and in Printrbot's open-source learning center.

Your town or city may have a community makerspace, where locals can learn to use a 3D printer, scanner, and modeling software. These are great places to meet enthusiasts and experts. Consider inviting local makers into the classroom to teach you and your students about your new printer and lead students through a project. T.J. Hendrickson has invited engineers, who've challenged his students to produce 3D products to submit to companies, into his junior high classroom.

Don't be afraid to experiment with your printer and get creative with projects. Remember, 3D printers are all about hands-on learning.

Conclusion

3D printers are new, and it can be daunting to integrate an emerging technology into your classroom. However, a major benefit of authentic learning is the opportunity to learn alongside your students. Together, you'll get to explore an exciting technology that may soon disrupt how everything from cars to clothes to houses is produced. Your classroom is the laboratory that will shape tomorrow's curious and skilled innovators.

How 3D printers are moving classrooms

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