uLearn presentation: The potential for 3D printers in High School

This Thursday I presented my research on 3D printers at uLearn14 (http://events.core-ed.org/ulearn). This is the script from the presentation. I am not able to put the slides up as I used images that I gathered during my research that I have permission to use but not distribute.

3D printing has already changed the world.

<Minecraft slide>

We now live in a world where the line between virtual designs and physical objects is becoming very blurry. In this example, on the left is a structure in Minecraft, on the right is a real 3D printed model of that structure.

< Chicago library makerlab >

Libraries in the US are starting to incorporate makerspaces, you can see a row of 3D printers in the background. They are getting onboard with the idea that you need to be able to do something with knowledge, so they are helping people learn to build their ideas.

< Robohand >

This means that it is now possible for a high school student to go to their local library and print off a working prosthetic hand from freely available designs.

<Researcher examples>

Researchers are printing almost everything from houses to cakes to bodyparts. Industrial 3D printers are taking over more and more tasks and are becoming part of many engineering workshops. This is a technology that is powerful, exciting, empowering and here to stay. What this will mean for us and our students, we don’t know.

<My examples>

When I bought my kitset printer I was amazed at what it could do and how it changed the way I thought about things. Suddenly I had the power to create almost anything (so long as it was small and plastic) I could think of. Now I know that there are many more things that I can fix. I know that if I need something I will be able to design it and print it, I don’t have to worry about whether I can find something that fits at the shop.

<My school examples>

When I convinced my school to buy two 3D printers I encouraged other teachers to use them. It was interesting to see the different uses people found for them The food technology teacher had a student use them to create a candy cutter for custom shaped candies. The fashion teacher had a student using them for a wearable arts project. One technology teacher used them to print parts for a hexacopter.  I became very interested in how 3D printers could be used in school.

When I looked I found that, while there is a lot of talk about 3D printers in classrooms, there has been very little research on 3D printers in a pre-tertiary setting.

This eFellowship project provided the chance to talk to other teachers and find out what was going on in classrooms in New Zealand. During this project I spoke to many teachers about their experiences with 3D printers in their classes. I was guided by three main questions:

  • What sort of projects have are being attempted?
  • Is there a pedagogical value beyond the initial “Oooh, shiny” reaction that everyone seems to get?
  • Can they transform the way students think about their world in the same way it did for me?

To start with I’ll talk about some of the projects I heard about.

The projects generally fall into three themes:

  • Whole class projects – Where everyone prints something
  • Part of class projects – Where the printer is available but optional
  • Individual projects – Usually for an extra-curricular activity

<Whole class>

First up are the whole class projects. The aim of these is to get every student print an object to take away with them.  Most of these projects are to design something small. The time it takes to print an entire class set of work is a major limitation.

Some of these projects can be quite restrictive in scope.

<Lego Brick>

For example creating this lego brick is an example of a skill building exercise. There is little room for student agency. Students create a Lego brick and emboss their name on it and can vary the choice of font.

<Pewter Jewellery>

Other projects like these pieces of jewellery (the design was 3D printed then cast in pewter) allow the students much more freedom to decide on what it will look like. But in the end the teacher has decided that the output will be a small piece of jewellery.


Some projects can be much more open. One primary school did a design project with the senior students designing toys for the younger ones. The students were free to decide on any type of toy to make, then went through a design process to gather ideas, plan a design and create the toys.
The extent to which the printers are used to foster student agency depends on the philosophy of the teacher. In terms of the SAMR continuum some teachers are comfortable substituting 3D printing skills for any other skill set be learned, while others use them to redefine the tasks they provide for their students.

<Part of class>

These are projects where not everyone will expect to print something. The printer is there as an option for those who are interested in it.

<Logo design>

These pictures are from a Logo design project for a year 12 class. In this project students needed to create a Logo for a company that would be fit for purpose in a variety of media, including vinyl sticker, embroidery and a 3D ornament or sculpture. Here most of the class had the chance to translate their design into a 3D model.

<Architectural details>

These pictures are from an architecture project. The students designed a building and had to build a cardboard model of their design. Some people in the class decided to use the 3D printer. They used the printer to do things that would have been very difficult to do conventionally but were easy with a printer. The ones who used the printer used it to augment their design with 3D printed elements such as the spiral staircase and window framing.  This allowed students to exercise their creativity without being held back by what they felt they could craft with their own hands.

<Individual projects>

The third type of activity is where an individual student uses the printer for a special project. This is not part of class work.

<Dr Who paraphernalia>

This can be totally student driven as they follow their own passion. I had one student who was a great Dr Who fan. He designed all sorts of props for Dr Who cos play and used the printer to make them. By using the printer he was able to put a lot of detail into his designs, knowing that the printer would handle it. Having the printer to create his designs was very empowering for him. While he was doing this he was unstoppable. He taught himself all the 3D design skills he needed and learned so much.

<Competition logos>

The other way teachers have driven individuals to use the printers is to encourage them for use in competitions. In competitions like VEX robotics students can make custom parts for their robots. In science competitions like International Young Physicists and Science Fairs students can use them to make special equipment. This allows them to get an edge.

I also talked to the teachers about where they saw the pedagogical value in their use of 3D

Printers are very cool and they have great novelty value at the moment. This is a real effect and every teacher I talked to spoke about how this engaged their students. Some students will sit staring at the printer for half an hour as it prints their first piece. For some students the chance to use the shiny new toy will re-engage them in school

<Cellphone stand>

This cellphone stand was designed by a student who was totally disengaged from school. He was waiting for his leavers paperwork to be finished. He came back to school specifically to finish the design and print it. I have even spoken to a student who said that the fact that the school had a 3D printer was a significant reason why he chose to go to that school.
While student engagement is definitely desirable, it is not enough by itself to justify the time and expense of a investing in a 3D printer. They need to have pedagogical value.

<Design cycle>

One place 3D printers can provide a real benefit is in any sort of product design. One key benefit to using a 3D printer in class is that it frees students to design what they want to design, without being restricted by their skill at construction. Traditionally the create step of the design cycle can be a place to spend time mastering the skills needed to carry out your design. Unless the design is so basic that it can be made out of clay or cardboard all of this learning and production has to happen during class time, under teacher supervision.  Most students do not have access to the tools or skills they need to produce their design.

<Earbud holder>

Imagine what these would have looked like if the students knew that they would be cutting them out by hand! With a 3D printer most of the work is done in a 3D design package. These are available to the students 24/7 anywhere with a computer, leaving them plenty of freedom to practice skills and work on their design in a time and place that best suits them. When it is time to construct the piece the printer takes care of it.

<Worm drive>

This lets students spend their time refining their prototype and making it work the way they want it to, rather than learning machine skills so they can construct their first basic idea. In this example the student made 7 different designs before he found one that worked. If he had had to make each from scratch he would not have had time to get it working and ultimately would not have found a design that would work.  Being able to quickly print prototypes increases the ability for students to tackle authentic, real world problems. This will allow them to participate and contribute more meaningfully in their community. This sort of experience is critical to sort of 21st century education that is argued for by Jane Gilbert and Rachel Bolstad.

As one of the teachers I talked to said, “a skills based curriculum makes us <teachers> lazy”. We should be helping students develop their ideas, find real problems to solve and apply their knowledge to novel challenges. The need to engage in solving real problems and apply knowledge are themes common in much of the future focused education literature, (21st C. ref group, Bolstad).

This quote from Ally Bull illustrates this point. As a maths teacher I found it challenging but what I was hearing was that we shouldn’t emphasise the teaching of skills. There are plenty of free instructional resources online. The role of the teacher should be to draw the students thinking out, really focus on the Key Competencies.

3D printers can be a catalyst for teacher change. The technology is so new that even experienced teachers are not very far ahead of their students. For some of the teachers I talked to, knowing that they were not very far ahead of their students made it easy to step back from a transmission teaching role and allowed them to work with the students

To conclude: I believe that 3D printers do have the potential to change the way students think about their world. However, as with any educational technology, the impact they have will be determined by how they are used in class. If they are used as a novelty to engage students in surface learning <Lego brick> the shine will soon fade.

<Sample of projects>

If they are used in ways that allow students to explore their passions, remove barriers and allow them to tackle more complex problems I believe that they have the will have a huge impact. 3D printers are a natural fit in product design. Once students see that 3D printers enable them to solve all sorts of different problems they will

<Fab lab: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roryrory/4941788744/ >

The most visionary teachers I talked to spoke about having the 3D printer as part of a fab lab in the school. This is where the 3D printer is combined with laser cutters, CNC routers and electronics. The idea of a Fab Lab is that it provides the tools to make almost anything. If this is the future then our students will have the capability to tackle almost any problem they choose to set their mind to at school. Just imagine what they will be able to do when they leave.

Some further readings:

Future-Focused learning in connected communities, 21st Century Learning Reference Group, May 2014

Supporting future-oriented learning & teaching — a New Zealand perspective, Bolstad et. al.

Swimming out of our depth, Ally Bull & Jane Gilbert, NZCER, 2012

How to make almost anything, http://cba.mit.edu/docs/papers/12.09.FA.pdf


Different views on 3D printers in schools

This year I’ve been investigating how 3D printers are being used in NZ schools as my eFellowship project. It has been really interesting hearing from other teachers who have had access to them. This is another post while I am in the process of making sense of it all.

While there are a lot of common themes about how teachers view the 3D printers (see the previous post) it is interesting to look at where there is a lot of discord.

One of the areas that seems to have the greatest divergence of views is in how 3D printers relate to NCEA (the high stakes assessment in NZ).

Some teachers see 3D design, along with 3D printing, as a great way to approach most of the technology curriculum. At every year level they see some standards that could make use of a 3D printer or would be improved by the sort of thing a 3D printer makes possible. One teacher was excited about trying some of the Y13 drawing standards which are very difficult by hand but would be easy with the help of software packages like SolidWorks. Software like this can take your design and generate the drawings that are needed easily.

Others find it hard to see where 3D printing fits with NCEA. They can think of few standards that could utilise a 3D printer, but not many. The complaints that they have are partly with the limitations of the machines. They feel that the printers are too small and slow for the students to do anything of a significant size or complexity. They fear that anything that their students could print would be too simple to be seen as relevant by NZQA. Or the output of the printer would be too rough and fragile to be enough by itself, so would need to be taught alongside other manufacturing skills which will make learning the 3D design less relevant. In these views the 3D printer is something that to a greater or lesser extent supports the various assessments that we can offer to our students.

The teachers who are most passionate tend not to talk about NCEA at all. They are the ones who talk about the students making designs for the real world to solve real problems. They talk about the 3D printer as being a part of a fab lab in school along with laser cutters, CNC routers and electronics (Arduino) workspaces. They see the 3D printer as just another way of removing obstacles to kids achieving a vision. These teachers mention the idea of using NCEA to assess a project but don’t seem to see student achievement in terms of passing NCEA standards. They see role of the school more as an entrepreneur incubator. In this view the 3D printer is what allows kids to feel their design and play with it. Without being able to do this they would struggle to understand the 3D models they were working on. One of my students last year was working on some skateboard trucks with some very interesting geometry. He only figured it out after he printed a prototype. He said that as soon as he could feel the piece it was clear how to fix the problem. With this mindset, being able to easily construct your design allows you to focus on the important learning; the 3D thinking and fast-fail prototyping cycle.

Another issue that there is very little agreement on is what sort of software to use. At the moment there is a huge variety of software out there. On one side of the scale is the high end commercial stuff, like AutoCAD and SolidWorks, which comes with a huge learning curve. On the other side there is the easy but limited software like SketchUP and TinkerCAD. The teachers that seem to think that 3D design is a worthwhile skill seem more prepared to invest the time in the high end software. The teachers who see it as a good part of the design process, but not valuable by itself, prefer the lighter software options. This is a tricky problem and it is one of the first questions people ask me when they want advice about 3D printers.

There is also a good spread of teacher’s faith in their student’s motivation and ability to learn. Some teachers feel that once the students know what they want to do they will be able and motivated to learn the design skills themselves, mainly through YouTube and other online tutorials (with a bit of guidance from the teacher). Others feel they need to have very simple, step by step instructions for the kids or they will fail. One teacher commented that the focus universities have on the core subjects (Maths and English) means that is where students put their energy, leaving little for Technology.

One last point of difference is about the “Wow” factor. All the teachers acknowledge that students see the printers as cool. The difference Some teachers seem to be trying to utilise this as one more novelty to keep students engaged with largely similar projects. Not all the teachers recognise that for 3D printers to be truly transformative they need to find ways to redefine the work they are asking their students to do to take advantage of the new capabilities,

Thinking about how schools use printers

This year I’ve been investigating how 3D printers are being used in NZ schools as my eFellowship project. It has been really interesting hearing from other teachers who have had access to them. This post is me in the process of making sense of it all.

It has been interesting seeing the common themes. Most of the people I have talked to have only just got the printer, either this year of last year. It really is a technology that is emerging right now. The stories I am hearing are stories from teachers who are doing things that no-one in their community has done before. These are the first few uses as a new technology enters schools. I am sure that in five to ten years the way they are used will change hugely.

Early on in every conversation the teacher mentions the problem of printing time. It just takes so long to print anything. So far no one I have talked to has more than three printers in their school. These two factors combined make it very hard to use printers with a whole class. When I first asked my school to buy some printers I reasoned that we would need at least 6 to be able to use them effectively with a class, and I will stand by this number. I was basing this on allowing every student a chance to print one thing a week in a standard class of 24 students with 4 periods a week. Given that most prints of take longer than an hour, students would be able to set off a job once per lesson per printer. Six printers, four periods a week allows you that. What is coming through loud and clear is that when you only have one printer you need to limit the types of object you allow students to design to tiny things (like buttons) or only allow a few students to print (as a reward for doing well, which I have a whole lot of objections to). And, either way it ends up taking a lot of teacher time running the printer outside of class time to get through the work queue.

One other thing that has come through strongly is that students are fascinated by watching the printer work. They like to see the print head move around and build up the object. One of my students spent 20 minutes with his eyes glued to the printer watching his first creation take shape. Allowing the students to be the ones to load up the model and press the button also helps to give them a sense of ownership and remove the disconnect between their design and the object. One of the teachers I talked to spoke about how she didn’t let the students print their own work. They sent their design away to a third party (the teacher) to be built, just like a design company will outsource the production. She talked about how she wants to give her students more access to the printers next time as this was an aspect of the process that they found really engaging.

So far every one of the teachers I have talked to has used the printers as part of some sort of design project. These projects generally take the form of:
• Get given a project
• Consult stakeholders (maybe just yourself)
• Design the object
• Make the object
• Get feedback
The place the printer fits in is in the second to last step. This step is where traditionally students would either make a rough prototype out of cardboard or papier-mâché or go to the workshop and spend a long time accurately building the object. In either case they would constrain their designs by what they knew they had the skills or materials to use. With a 3D printer the creation just happens. Students can put their efforts into the design phase, knowing that the making will just happen. Some of the teachers I have talked to are aware of this and can see ways to leverage it into new learning. Some are having trouble seeing past the time it takes to print, or the skills the students need to learn to do the 3D design.

Why I love 3D printing


There is nothing quite like the feeling of holding something in your hands, knowing that you created it. That you have taken an idea that was in your mind and brought it into the world is quite a buzz.

These days most design work is done on a computer. This is great because you can be as precise as you want. You can spend the time getting things placed perfectly. Making things this accurately in the real world can be difficult. Best of all, when you make a mistake on the computer you can use the undo button. No worthwhile learning happens without some mistakes along the way and the undo button takes a lot of the pain out of it.

However once something has been designed you need to get it out of the computer so you can touch it.

There are many ways to bring design into the real world. There are so many different crafts to choose from: metalwork, woodwork, pottery and so on. They are all worthwhile and have their own advantages. But to use any of these is difficult. You need to buy lots of different tools, then you need to learn to use them, and get good at it. All before you can produce anything interesting or useful.

Also, they don’t have an undo button.

3D printers bridge the gap between the design and the object. With the press of a button you get a faithful physical reproduction of your virtual creation. I don’t have the skills or the tools I need to build my object. If I tried I would make a mess of it and I would never be able to tell if it was the fault of my design or my implementation of it.

I hit this problem myself when I tried to recreate a sycamore seed.

When I was in primary school I wanted to make a working copy of a sycamore seed. I was pretty sure I understood how they worked and knew what I had to make. Sadly, the best I could do with cardboard and tape wasn’t good enough and didn’t fly.

More than a few years later I decided to try again. I designed it in the computer and hit print. What came out worked perfectly and I could see that it hadn’t been my understanding that was broken, it was my implementation. You can see the working model on the Thingiverse.

3D printers are a very friendly way to take designs and turn them into physical objects. They let you focus on the design and leave the construction to the machine. They lower the threshold so that anyone can realise their ideas. Imagine a child growing up with a 3D printer – just imagine the way they will think about design.