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3D Printing in Education: Where Are We Now and What Does the Future Hold?

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Despite the fact “addictive manufacturing,” more commonly known as 3D printing, first appeared more than 25 years ago, interest in this revolutionary technology has spiked in recent years. Not long ago, few thought that it would become a legitimate alternative to well-established production and printing processes.

3d printing search popularity graph google trends

Graph showing search interest in “3D printing” over time, via Google Trends

For some this is still the case, as just like any other new technology, 3D printing has yet to establish a foothold in industrial or consumer markets. However, there is one sector in particular that is already embracing the benefits that 3D printing can bring; education. Still, 3D printing’s influence in this sector is only in its infancy.

The benefits of 3D printing in education

boy and girl holding 3d printed heart

Image credit: Cubify

Away from the concerns that 3D printing could undermine skilled occupations or be used to manufacture dangerous products such as firearms, certain parts of the education sector have welcomed this technology with open arms. This is because of the numerous benefits 3D printing can bring:

  • New learning possibilities – In addition to literally seeing their designs come to life, students can interact with the finished product and experience it ways not previously possible.
  • Access to learning materials – If a school or teacher doesn’t have access to learning materials, they can simply make them then and there.
  • Creates excitement and engagement – Rather than passively reading from a textbook or listening to the teacher, students will have a more active interest in 3D printing, as it is very much a hands-on activity.
  • Encourages creativity and innovation – With access to design software and a 3D printer, the possibilities of what a student can create are endless, which encourages greater innovation.
  • Promotes critical thinking and problem solving-skills – In areas of education where students must exercise critical thinking and problem-solving skills, a 3D printer can assist immeasurably.
  • Better knowledge retention rates – People learn new information and knowledge more effectively if they do rather than just seeing or listening.
  • Affordable teaching tool – As opposed to a few years ago when 3D printers cost thousands of pounds, they are now much more affordable and cheaper than alternative teaching tools such as laptops and computers.

Although some may feel as though 3D printing is simply a way for students to experiment and express their creativity, this technology can be much more practical than that. In fact, learning materials produced for subjects like maths and science could inspire the next generation of engineers, architects, designers, or any other creative yet empirical occupation.

It can also help students that struggle with learning theories and topics from a textbook but are much more capable when given tangible objects to work with. Therefore, students that were previously disillusioned with education could not only be reinvigorated by the prospect of learning but also unlock their hidden potential.

Potential 3D printing applications in education

If you are struggling to think of ways in which 3D printing could be used in education or you feel as though there isn’t enough scope for this technology in the classroom, here are some potential applications.

young boy and girl on 3d printing computer

Image credit: Cubify

  • Geography – To help students learn which countries are located within Europe or the location of counties in England, 3D printers can be used to create interactive maps. These can be used as a puzzle for students to organise and assemble or simply put on the wall as a constant learning aid. Another advantage of geographic objects like maps and national crests is that they can be used for subjects such as politics or history too.
  • Mathematics – From tactile models that help young kids count to more comprehensive creations involving complex theories, 3D printing can be of great assistance when learning maths. An interesting article on Huffington Post delves into the possibilities of 3D Printing and the Future of Math Education, which includes explaining concepts, inspiring wonder, and building full-scale experiments.
  • Science – Perhaps the biggest range of 3D printing opportunities come with science. Things like the skeletal structure of a dinosaur and the mountains on Mars can be printed ahead of time for students to explore. However, molecular model sets and functioning bottle rockets can be created as part of a prolonged project that covers theory and design.
  • History – Students may struggle to comprehend what world-famous structures like the Parthenon in Greece and the Colosseum in Rome actually looked like from simply studying modern-day images. However, they can be recreated in all their glory thanks to 3D printers, which may also be used to produce sculptures of extinct animals or fallen historic figures.

More 3D printing lesson ideas and schemes of work can be found on the CREATE Education website. This project brings together “game changing technology,” such as 3D printing, with inspirational content and creative minds to produce free educational resources.

Example of 3D printing for educational purposes

One success story of 3D printing in education comes from Manchester, where 14-year-old schoolgirl Amy Mather won the European Commission’s first European Digital Girl of the Year Award in 2013. After attending the Manchester Science Festival aged just 11 years old, Amy developed an interest in coding and later 3D design.

amy mather with 3d printing model

Image source: tech4goodawards

However, the biggest inspiration for her work was said to be the “digital maker” movement, which is a global drive to motivate young people to be creative with technology. Thanks to public open days at the Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) in Manchester, Amy was able to use software and hardware not available at her school.

Even so, she used 3D design and manufacturing techniques to produce her GCSE product design coursework. Since then, Amy has presented her ideas at events such as Campus Party at London’s O2 Arena, Wired Next Generation and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA).

For her coursework, Amy used 3D design software to make her own flat-pack version of a stool and then used a machine to cut out the individual pieces. She has also used laser-cutting technology to make cases for computers and a 3D printer to design a vacuum-formed chocolate mould for a friend’s birthday party.

“What I really like is that you can make very intricate designs,” said Amy. “Most of the software is very easy to use, very intuitive. With just a couple of online tutorials, it’s really easy to learn how to get around it.”

But while Amy has Fab Lab in Manchester to thank for her award and acknowledgements, certain schools are also starting to recognise the merits of 3D printing for educational purposes and have benefitted from government-backed funding trials.

School involvement with 3D printing

kids playing with 3d printed educational models

Image credit: Cubify

In an attempt to “explore the potential use of 3D printers to enrich teaching across STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and design subjects, the Department for Education (DfE) funded a small trial between 2012-13. In total 21 schools took part in 3D printers in schools: uses in the curriculumand were asked how the technology could help teach more complex scientific and mathematical ideas.

Even though these schools reported that early work with 3D printing was often trial and error, more effective and informed use to deliver the curriculum developed over a period of time. DT departments tended to be the “hub” of learning through 3D technologies, mainly due to the fact CAD software was already a feature, but science and mathematics classrooms reported high levels of pupil motivation when engaged in printing projects.

“All the pupils who have been involved with the 3D printer so far have been inspired by its possibilities. The opportunity to realise a concept or idea quickly into a 3D product is an incredibly powerful teaching tool,” said David Jermy, head of DT at Settlebeck High School, Sedbergh, Cumbria.

The conclusion of the DfE’s report also revealed “feedback from this exploratory project confirms that 3D printers have significant potential as a teaching resource and can have a positive impact on pupil engagement and learning if schools can master how to use the printers in an effective and meaningful way.

“The project allowed participating schools to explore potential benefits and challenges of using this technology in the curriculum and to share their experiences with other schools wishing to introduce 3D printers.”

Following this trial, Michael Gove announced funding for a further 60 schools to acquire 3D printers. However, implementing and integrating this technology in the curriculum isn’t without its difficulties.

Challenges associated with 3D printing in education

Irrespective of the advantages that 3D printing in education can afford, there are still a few obstacles that exist. Having said that, the majority of which can be overcome with relative ease. Challenges include:

  • Knowledge – The DfE’s 3D printing project revealed that it took teachers a few months to become familiar enough with the technology to use it successfully and confidently in the classroom. However, teachers with lots of enthusiasm for the project or those that underwent training found it much easier to introduce 3D printing to the curriculum. Training sessions featured demonstrations of the printer set up and software by experienced presenters. Two schools did a joint course to save money and collaborate on ideas too.
  • Support – According to the DfE’s trial, the most successful schools had practical and financial support from senior managers, including encouragement to use unfamiliar technology. These managers also built strong teams of talented individuals that could disseminate their technical knowledge to pupils but also allow teachers to focus on learning aims. Any schools without this support may struggle to implement 3D printing successfully.
  • Accessibility – Easy access to a 3D printer could also be a factor for successful implementation. In the DfE’s trial, most printers were kept on view and accessible to pupils in a permanent location, such as DT teaching rooms. However, in some schools the printer was moved around or even kept in the staff room, which may affect teacher and pupil involvement as well as learning effectiveness.
  • Funding – While the government gave grants to schools taking part in the DfE trial, other educational institutions may struggle to find the funds for purchasing a 3D printer. Nevertheless, the price of 3D printers is coming down all the time and is comparable to other classroom technology

The report also found some 3D prints took an hour and a half to complete, while certain designs were so complex that the machine couldn’t produce them. It is also worth noting that 3D printers require a lot of time and effort in regards to finding the right materials, overcoming software issues, and fixing technical faults.

However, feedback from schools was overwhelmingly positive, as the challenges that did become apparent provided little to no long-term difficulties or problems.

So what does the future hold for 3D printing in education?

making the future wax candle

When you take into account the benefits of 3D printing, its potential applications, tangible success stories from existing school students, and findings from a government-funded trial, it seems as though this technology could carry a great deal of influence for educating present and future generations.

You only need to read the DfE’s report to know how significant 3D printing in education could be. But as with any new technology, challenges will need to be overcome in order to truly reap the rich rewards of 3D printing.

“This report highlights successes and challenges in effectively implementing 3D printers in the classroom. Many of the schools involved in this project commented on how motivated their pupils were by using the printer. Many of the teachers involved were passionate in their desire to successfully embed the printer into their teaching and often devoted much of their own time to exploring new ways to teach their subjects.

“The project highlighted the need for good quality upfront training of teachers when introducing new technologies including teaching approaches, and sufficient non-contact time to plan the most effective use of the printers. Most schools relied on good technical support both from manufacturers and internal staff to start using the printer effectively.”

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