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,


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