Elementary Social Studies – Building a Community

The main goal of this project is to have the students explore the idea of building a community. The end result is that by coming together as a class (and a community), they will be able to build their own little town. Considerations should be made to different cultural groups within the community and a focus on what the people of the community need and how they can be provided for.

The students then go and design pieces of the town digitally and use a 3D printer to make them real. The pieces themselves will be on interlocking “puzzle piece” bases so that they can be put together into a real town.

The full Word document with curriculum connections and activity design can be downloaded right here for you to access and modify as needed: Elementary Social Studies – Building a Community

You can also find this activity and the models that I built here on Thingiverse.

Real-Life Connections: Everyone lives in communities. Literally everyone in the world. Where a person lives, common interests, cultural values, and many other factors affect what kind of community it is. By building their own community, students can take a look at not only what needs are shared within a community but also the diversity of the community around them. Some examples of this would be differences in religion, and inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives.


Are buildings what make a community?

Differentiation: One big thing here is that not all students will be willing or able to cope with the demands of even beginner-level 3D design. For the younger grades, I would suggest giving them time to play around with whichever software you choose to use ahead of time so that they can learn it and become somewhat familiar with it before assigning a task to them.

For those students that don’t wish to use iPads or computers, I would provide alternative means of building, starting with having some “blank” puzzle pieces ready and printed off, and allowing the students to build with clay, paper, glue, or whichever other materials they like and build directly onto the puzzle pieces. This allows them to contribute while still having the technological aspect of 3D printing stay in play.

Design Programs:

  • 123D Design: 

I created the base puzzle piece in Blender and suggest that the teacher make use of 123D Design from Autodesk for the student work.

Start by creating a classroom account that everyone can use and adding a flat square base to “My Projects”. (The reason is because the puzzle piece base is too complex for the iPad app. The teacher will need to make some small modifications before the end result occurs.) Then each student should get an iPad with the 123D Design app installed. From there, they can open the base and save a copy to their individual iPads to modify. Once they are finished their designs, they can save them to the “Cloud” or account, which can then be accessed by the teacher on the PC 123D Design program, which allows for final adjustments to be made.

The teacher will need to move the student-made objects off the square base and onto the puzzle piece base. Some small position adjustments may be necessary to accommodate for the interlocking segments of the bases. The models should be exported as .stl files and when doing this, the box marked “Combine Objects” should be checked. Before using a slicer, use Netfabb’s model repair service to fix any holes in the models. Print with supports as needed.

One of the only downsides to 123D Design that I can see is that it may be frustrating for students with little digital design experience to manipulate the shapes the ways that they want to. Having students work with partners or in small groups may be largely beneficial here.

  • 3D Slash: 

An alternative to 123D Design is the service called 3D Slash, available both as a web-based application and a computer app. Here is a link to a similar project with a different base template made up, or alternatively a direct link to the project on 3D Slash.

As with 123D Design, a class account can be created where students can all work on individual projects while still allowing the teacher access to them. One pitfall here that the teacher should be mindful of is that all students will have access to the others’ work and that tampering with what someone else has created is a potential issue.

There are some advantages to 3D slash in that students with any experience playing Minecraft (or if you are using the Minecraft in the Classroom teaching approach) will be right at home with the block-building and –demolishing style of design, which is arguably simpler than what 123D Design offers. One of the downsides is the lack of curved surfaces, and another is the possibility of large “holes” in the products that may be missed by the teacher when checking models and cause problems when printing. It’s also not available on iPads, which are readily available in many schools.

  • SOLIDWORKS Apps for Kids

This is here because it looks promising, but at this time it does not exist yet. In the future, this may very well be the best option for this activity.

It is largely up to the teacher to determine which design software is best for their classroom and I recommend that the teachers go through the options themselves to make this choice.

The teacher should also determine which colours of filament (assuming that’s a choice) the students want their individual pieces printed in, and should be responsible for printing off multiple pieces in a row with the same colour of filament so as to reduce print time. Once the pieces are printed, it would also be a good idea to mark the students’ names on the bottoms of the pieces for later on in the year when it comes time for the town to go home with the students.

Results: Like I said above, I used Blender to make the base puzzle piece shape, and then I used the iPad app 123D Design to use simple shapes and make a power plant/factory tile and a houses tile. As you can see, the pieces fit together and I have made it so that they should fit together as long as the male side matches with a female side.

Assessment: The focus of assessment shouldn’t have to do with the design or the printing itself but on the lessons of community, so group discussions and small written assessments like letters home to parents or grandparents about the values of the community they built or what someone else brought into the community to add to its diversity would be by recommendation for formal assessment. In general, I feel that this activity has more to do with attitudes than it does about knowledge.