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.

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