5 Ways To Supercharge Your 3D Printing Program

by Rich Lehrer, TeachThought PD Facilitator

Grow >> 3D Printing Workshop

3D Printers are becoming increasingly common in schools – yet, in many cases pedagogy is struggling to catch up with the technology. Large capital investments in printers and filament result in pressure on teachers and students to start “creating product”; meaning that schools occasionally fall into the habit of “just printing something” in order to justify the expense (“hey, the machines are being used”) and allow students to experience first-hand the technology and the magical act of turning a digital file into a tangible object. However, I believe that schools that take this approach are not only seriously under-utilizing an incredibly powerful teaching, critical thinking, and problem solving tool – they also may be heading down a road along which it may be tricky to back track.

If a school were to spend thousands of dollars on a class set of laptops, yet only use them for printing documents of random words or clipart designed by someone else, no one in their right mind would conclude that this technology was being used to its fullest extent. Yet, many schools are not prepared to hold their 3D printing programs to the same educational standards. At Brookwood School in Manchester-By-The-Sea, MA, when our first 3D printing project in 2013 resulted in a functional prosthetic for my son, it quickly became clear that these machines held the potential for some pretty transformative educational experiences, and set us on a path to getting the most out of this new technology. Below are some recommendations regarding how to “supercharge your 3D printing program”:

1. Get Original!

Time to stop letting your students download and print those Yoda Heads…right now. Allowing students to use printers to generate more plastic items designed by others will (rightly) raise concern about the educational use of these machines and sends the message to students that only professionally designed objects should be printed and that student designs are somehow “inferior”. If your school hangs student art on its walls you have a community that is ready to display student 3D designs.

2. Get Collaborating!

And not just with other teachers. Getting 3D designing and printing on the radar of as many maintenance workers, faculty, custodians, kitchen workers, and librarians as possible turns 3D printing into a shared community experience. More users mean a wider variety of potential projects and heightened expectations for educational uses for the printers. Have your students present the potential of this technology to all constituents – they get the authentic public speaking experience while building interest and capacity in your community. And while you’re at it, get those printers out of the basement and put them in your school’s main thoroughfares…the buzz they generate will more than compensate for how irritated people will be by the noise of them running!

3. Get Real!

Immediately! Your school community is a limitless source of authentic engineering opportunities and design challenges…People just don’t know it because they haven’t been trained to think in terms of 3D “problem finding” yet. I’ve been working with other school communities for several years to becoming open to setting up a school 3D Design Problem Bank incorporating the concept of “Good Problems” – i.e. situations in need of solution that a school community is prepared to pass to students to solve so that they might “cut their problem solving teeth.” 3D printing is a perfect tool to introduce students to this idea and empower them to become innovators and inventors. Not to mention the fact that it becomes tougher for students to justify using the printers for trinkets when you’ve got a cue of authentic solutions to print!

4. Get Out!

…of your school, that is. A new generation of educational innovators are seeing in 3D printing a chance to connect their students to the community and world outside of their school walls. 3D designing and printing provides young people with a chance to create unique and sophisticated assistive devices that have the potential to actually  be of use to someone. Many educators will be familiar with the opportunity to bring deep and real-life learning experiences to the classroom by connecting students to the incredible 3D Printed prosthetic work being done by the eNABLE movement and the Enable Community Foundation’s Education Initiative. Yet this assistive device work is really just the tip of the iceberg. From daycares to seniors’ residences to hospitals (to name a few), there are countless design collaborations waiting to be formed in students’ communities. And as more schools around the world acquire 3D Printers, new opportunities for global problem solving collaborations are created. Problems being solved while students are becoming more collaborative and empathetic along the way – a pretty compelling combination.

5. Get Lean!

Nothing can bog down a 3D printing program quicker than several 24-hour prints that monopolize printers and shut other students out of the chance to use the technology. Throw in a couple more 12-hour prints that fail in the final hour and several more longish prints that end up not being usable because a student failed to measure properly and you have the makings of a struggling 3D program and a machine that is one step closer to being mothballed. Keep your 3D program lean and “agile”, involving as many students as possible. Require your students to prove to you that their design is “going to work”. Demand that they first create a nearly 2D “print slice” or footprint that proves that their dimensions and specs are correct. Help your students become leaner with their 3D printing by setting limits on mass or print times. Students become obliged to think critically, less material and energy is used, and the printers are more available for other students…not to mention the fact that more frequent passes through the design cycle = a better and more refined design.

We are, without a doubt, at the beginning of understanding the possible educational uses of this exciting new technology. By making a few simple changes to the ways in which your school and students approaches 3D printing, you will soon be on your way to creating meaningful and authentic experiences for your students…and not just more Yoda Heads!

For more information about Rich Lehrer’s work and Brookwood School’s Authentic 3D Design Initiatives, contact us today.

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