3D printing may not have made it to our everyday lives yet, but it's being used more than we think across many different global industries, completely changing the landscape of innovation, design, and manufacturing. Some incredible things that 3D printers have produced are steel pedestrian bridges, medical implants for facial reconstruction, medical models for surgeons to practice on before operating, and satellite parts set to launch this year.
The benefits of using 3D printing instead of traditional manufacturing methods are numerous – the costs are lowered by hundreds of billions of dollars, the time is cut by sometimes weeks, and the quality and complexity of the designs is much better. Not to mention, it's better for the environment, cutting CO2 emissions by hundreds of metric tons.
Why Do We Need Them in Schools?
Well, to start, it's clear that 3D printing will be a big part of our kids' future, so why not start teaching them about it now? Just as past generations had to familiarize students with computers, we must now give kids a foundation in this technology. And the great thing about 3D printers is that it's not hard to get kids interested. There's a big wow factor that comes with 3D printing – kids want to study and explore this magic machine that turns nothing into something. It's a great way to spark interest in subjects that some kids might otherwise find boring.
And, that interest is important to all of us in the grand scheme of things, with hundreds of thousands of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs left unfilled. There's an alarming shortage of young people interested in these sorts of careers that, as a country, we need more of to stay afloat in this ever-changing, complex world.
As prevalent as those subjects are, the 3D printer works for just about any subject. So when you invest in a 3D printer, it's not just going to one department. It could virtually go to all departments.
Here's How 3D Printing Works Across All Subjects:
Math – 3D printers can help students grasp abstract math problems that may be confusing or inaccessible on paper. A teacher can plug numbers and angles from a geometry problem into the printer and print a 3D shape for students to see the concept in the physical world.
Science – Students can create cells and organs in biology, build models of molecules in chemistry, and even create their very own lab equipment. When it comes time for that dreaded frog dissection, students can assemble their own frogs, eliminating the animal cruelty and the need to caution squeamish stomachs.
Engineering – Students can sketch 2-dimensional figures on paper, build prototypes with classroom and household materials, then plug their designs into the printer to create a professional 3D model. They can do architectural projects, constructing buildings and infrastructure or they can build mini machines that perform a task and solve a problem.
Geology and Geography – Instead of seeing 2-dimensional landforms in a textbook, students can print out scaled versions of anything from mountains, to canyons, to planets. Look out for 3D printer-savvy textbooks that include files for 3D printable models for each chapter of the book. In the real world, 3D printing has been used in this field to land a shuttle on a comet, study earthquake data, and better understand the intricacies of oil/gas fracking.
History – 3D printers can bring the most coveted ancient artifacts from museums all over the world right into the classroom – and many of the replicas are near indistinguishable from the originals. We all know that looking at a picture or reading about something from the past can sometimes be a bit boring. But the interest level in the classroom will definitely go up having something pretty close to the real thing. You can study dinosaur fossils, medieval weaponry, and the architectural brilliance of ancient civilizations all without leaving the classroom.
Art – 3D printers allow students to get creative in an entirely new way. Much like with engineering, students can sketch and create models of artistic pieces using the 3D printer. It's a fantastic way to show students how their work can come to life. Because of its digital aspect, schools can hold contests with schools all over the world, printing the projects in all locations.
Now, What About the Logistics?
While 3D printers are still expensive, the price has dropped significantly, especially for educational institutions. You can get a decent entry level printer for $200-$400 that is great for experimenting with 3D printing for the first time. These will only print small objects about 3-4” in each dimension and can probably only work with one material, and despite their slow and noisy printing, they definitely help a beginner get the feel for 3D printing.
If you've got the money and a bit more knowledge of 3D printing, a hobbyist 3D printer ($300-$1500) is great for schools, with faster printing, a wider range of materials, and bigger results (5-6”). However, these often require a lot of maintenance and repairs.
Above this level you have enthusiast, professional, and industrial printers where it starts to get pretty pricey and should probably be left to higher education.
You'll also have to keep the cost and type of filament in mind.
Other than price, you probably want to buy a machine that is already assembled and allows students to see the printing process. And because 3D printing is most likely new to your teachers, you'll want to buy from a company that has good customer support, especially within the realm of education.
You'll want to start by downloading printable images from websites like Thingiverse or YouMagine, before you work your way up to modifying and creating images.
There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to 3D printing, but it's not impossible to grasp and there are plenty of online resources to help you out. In the end, it will be great for your students, your school, and yourself as a skillful and progressive teacher.