3D Printing in the Curriculum

One of the greatest problems that we educators face when it comes to technology is how to make useful connections to it in the classroom as opposed to using them for the sake of using them. We need to be able to make meaningful curricular connections to the technologies that we use so that students can understand how knowing about these things will be beneficial to their lives and future careers.

3D printers are an extremely new technology and remain on the cutting-edge of technology design. In the past several years, they’ve been reduced in price to the point where they are now as affordable for home ownership as computers are. But despite the current use they are finding, mostly in the production and manufacturing industry, they are still largely an untapped resource for education and other industries. I think that a lot of the reason for this is because they have yet to be saturated into the current environment (see McLuhan’s writings for deeper reasoning for this), and as such are still largely “mythical” to people who aren’t as up-to-speed on technological development (they’ve heard about them but think they’re something that can only happen “somewhere else”).

Many applications of 3D printers have already found wide-spread use throughout the world, which include, but are not limited to:

  • Art
    • Brings 3D design into the real-world

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Now the question becomes, “How exactly are 3D printers useful in education?” My answer to this is that the applications of this particular technology are most heavily concentrated in the subjects of Art and graphic design courses (which are often offered within computer courses), although as demonstrated by the example given above, there are also many applications for science and CTS course as well.

The following links the applications of 3D printers to the ICT Outcomes for Division 4 in the province of Alberta:

  • C.6 – Students will use technology to investigate and/or solve problems.
    • generate new understandings of problematic situations by using some form of technology to facilitate the process
      • As I stated above, 3D printers are a very new technology and as such, can be very buggy. There is a LOT of trial-and-error and problem-solving needed to even get started learning how to print. Even advanced printers often need to cancel and restart prints after much tinkering in order to get the designs just right. (Even as I write this, I’m seething because I’m working on a print that just refuses to work properly.)
    • evaluate the appropriateness of the technology used to investigate or solve a problem
      • To use an example from art, in some cases a particular sculpture may be simply too complicated in design to be able to be made by hand. In this case, a 3D printer may be the solution for the construction problem. However, this may not always be the case, and making the determination of whether a 3D printer is useful or necessary in a particular case could help to teach this outcome.
  • F.1 – Students will demonstrate an understanding of the nature of technology.
    • assess the strengths and weaknesses of computer simulations in relation to real-world problems
      • 3D printers make computer simulations real. In this way, something that was once abstract becomes a physical reality and can therefore be tested in physical ways and not just in simulations. (ie// testing the strength of a bridge’s design)
    • demonstrate an understanding of the general concepts of computer programming and the algorithms that enable technological devices to perform operations and solve problems
      • Before a design can be printed, it must first be created in code. An .obj or .stl file must be designed through the proper software, and then must be sliced with many factors and settings taken into account before it can be printed. Basically: you can’t print without some background knowledge of coding.
  • F.2 – Students will understand the role of technology as it applies to self, work and society.
    • evaluate possible potential for emerging technologies
      • This is exactly what I’m arguing in this assignment: that there are uses for this technology, but there can always be more. To have this available as a resource and a tool to students opens the door to a whole new realm of creativity in the classroom.
    • analyze and assess the impact of technology on the global community
      • This particular outcome has great ties to the social studies curriculum. The impacts of 3D printers are only still just being realized. I listed some of the current applications above, but there are many more still waiting to be discovered and made use of. One of the biggest global impacts may be the reinvention of the crafting system of manufacturing. The western world is very heavily focused on its manufactured goods, but when we reach a point where we can make everything at home ourselves instead of buying them from someone else, then the impacts on the economy could make resounding waves.
  • F.3 – Students will demonstrate a moral and ethical approach to the use of technology.
    • respect ownership and integrity of information
      • Before a person designs their own models to print, they start off with what’s been made available online through other people. This opens up the question of ownership, and copyright laws for information on the internet.
  • F.4 – Students will become discerning consumers of mass media and electronic information.
    • evaluate the influence and results of digital manipulation on our perceptions
      • Basically the same argument here as for the strengths and weaknesses of computer simulations addressed previously. 3D printers can make the abstract real, so comparing the physical to the digital has become even easier.

These are only some potential outcomes that can be linked to 3D printers. We as teachers are professionals who are given a large amount of leeway when it comes to how we teach. I’d like to show my students technologies that they can make use of later in life, and give them experiences that will help them in their future careers.

To that end, I’ve been developing some activities that connect to the Alberta Programs of Study as a means of integrating 3D printing into Alberta schools. I will add to these over time, so be sure to check back! There are also many other places to look for educational ideas, like Thingiverse or MyMiniFactory, which both have sections entirely dedicated to educational purposes.