A current hot topic across staff rooms and P&C meetings is the 3D printer, and whether this is a machine worth investing in. What are the benefits? Are there any drawbacks? How cost effective is it for a school? And what can they actually do?
For those who are unaware of the rise of this technological marvel, the 3D printer can build a three-dimensional object from scratch, using a variety of materials laid down layer by layer. Creations unfold using metals, polymers, plastics, glass, ceramics, plaster, and even chocolate.
The most obvious benefit of having a 3D printer is the ability to physically manifest the prototype of an idea, or a finished object. Examples vary from sculptures, to replicas of artefacts, to food printing. Jewellers are increasingly using this technique to make wax castings of designs for clients, meaning pieces can be tried on, adjusted and remodelled before even reaching for the precious metals.
So how does this translate to the classroom? The 3D printer can be seen as a valuable asset to students’ imaginations and learning. It opens up the ability to replicate a fossil, or design a tool, or create a work of art – the potential for ideas is almost endless.
In fact, 3D printing technology could be worked into many areas within the curriculum. Take mathematics as an example: graphs, complex mathematical models and diagrams can be understood through tangible representations rather than flat on the page. This enlivens the lesson, helps those who struggle with traditional teaching methods, and adds a ‘cool’ factor for many students.
History students can replicate curios and relics, making a physical and linear connection with the subject matter. Geography classes can show three-dimensional rock formations, maps, scaled-down land mass, rivers and canyons.
Art and design classes are able to use three-dimensional models to envisage their ideas, and even share these on collaborative projects with other schools – the end results available anywhere that has a 3D printer. Architectural designs can be brought to life with physical representations.
The importance of STEM within the curriculum is an area where 3D printing can be used to great effect. Critical thinking and problem solving benefit from technological resources that help students become inventors and ‘learner makers’.
Engineering students can create prototypes, or robotic parts; science students can print out molecular structures or cross sections of organs – an exciting process to watch, let alone use. Students can test the functional and ergonomic properties of their designs, and appreciate the aesthetics through a solid, rather than virtual, model.
Teaching young people how to use these machines will place them at an advantage, especially if they choose to pursue a STEM-based career, as the use of 3D printers in the ‘real world’ is only increasing.
Learning to use CAD (computer-aided design) software is also advisable for students or teachers, to know how the program works and design effectively with the machine. However, websites, such as Thingiverse and GrabCAD, which allow users to upload 3D images for printing, means this is not imperative.
Are there any pitfalls to owning a 3D printer? In the work/manufacturing environment questions have been raised about copyright issues, and there is also a limit in the size of product one can create, although this is not such a concern within the school and college environment.
Cost is another area to weigh up. As is the tendency with all new technology, as 3D printers become a more common fixture in business and especially in educational settings, the principle outlay is becoming ever more affordable – though attention to consumables, electricity usage and possible parts replacement over time is still important for budgeting considerations.
Life expectancy is conditional on use and maintenance, but ten years is a reasonable assumption, based on regular use and a good servicing and maintenance program.
So, now it comes down to whether this technology is a positive investment for schools and colleges? The 3D printer is definitely a learning tool, continually evolving, with endless possibilities in the future within a large range of industries, for those who are adept at using it.
The ‘fun factor’ is also a recognised method to help children absorb information, rather than just by rote or Q&A session. What could be more enjoyable than building your own bridge, or designing a creature or making a prototype of an invention? 3D printing offers project-based learning through experimentation, discussion and a three-dimensional, tactile result.
The imaginative scope for creativity, investigation and analysis proffered by 3D printing, plus the enjoyment of watching ideas, objects and theories manifest, surely outweighs the cost when it comes to education.