3D printing: learning in a new dimension

3D printing is accelerating the creative process at every level as it storms its way into the 21st century, finds Clare Blake

If the introduction of the first printing press heralded a revolution in education that moved at lightning speed as it consigned the laborious handwritten textbooks of previous generations to antiquity, that process has now taken another gigantic leap forward; the equivalent of warp speed for a Federation starship. The rapid development of materials and techniques has made 3D printing one of the most exciting technologies now available, with new uses constantly being discovered, and ranging from jet engine parts to 3D-printed customised prosthetics and even 3D-printed pizzas for NASA astronauts.   

Education is already investing heavily in 3D printing as teachers prepare for an increasingly technology-based future, and primary schools have been ready adopters, believing that starting young makes perfect sense. Teachers report that the children seem unfazed by the printers and really enjoy working with them, perhaps hardly surprising when we live in a 3D world and children today are surrounded by technology. 

Teachers know hands-on learning tends to ‘stick’ better, and 3D printing involves the child at every stage. It provides a liberating, learning-rich environment where children explore, discuss, create, test and share, gaining the important knowledge that seeming ‘failures’ lead to improved solutions. Fiona Shelmerdine, Year 6 teacher at Brookmead School in Leighton Buzzard, is amazed by its impact on her class: “They’re totally motivated and the goal of reaching the end product spurs them on to tackle quite difficult tasks – scaling up, scaling down, analysing how to make things work better – the process is creatively stimulating for everyone.”

In secondary schools, 3D printing can bring subjects to life right across the curriculum as pupils explore topics via 3D models, e.g. geometric shapes, chemistry molecules or historical artefacts. Adrian Brandwood, Head of Design Technology at Broughton High School, Preston, finds its potential for experiential learning an incredibly powerful teaching tool: “3D printing has allowed an additional precision technique for all our students to innovate and experiment with.” Kevin Samuel, YSoft Business Development Manager, agrees: “It gives both students and teachers power to go beyond the somewhat one-dimensional nature of the textbook, making the learning process more dynamic for everyone involved.”  

3D printing also makes a compelling case for STEAM over STEM, as it is creativity that stimulates the discovery and innovation that plays such a key part of the design process in creating 3D models. This suggests that a STEAM combination is preferential as it facilitates a rich experimental, experiential and idea-led environment.

“You could say the 3D printer is the modern equivalent of Michelangelo’s chisel. The chisel on its own is just a tool for gouging stone, but in the hands of someone extremely creative like Michelangelo, you end up with a David.”

Printing for all

However, the practicalities of introducing 3D printing into schools can be daunting if educators lack confidence using the technology and/or incorporating it into lessons, while cost, access and security can also be issues. Fortunately, 3D printers and 3D printing materials are now much more affordable and there are really good options available, such as reliable Dremel Digilab printers. These have easy-to-use software, so you can be printing in just 15 minutes, plus a world-class customer support service, while the Dremel ThinkSpace community offers support, ideas, lesson plans, etc. Andrew Cluney, UK Dremel Brand Manager, believes passionately in 3D printing: “Its groundbreaking applications are changing the world we live in… schools have a responsibility to expose pupils to this important technology.”

Another great resource is the CREATE Education Project, a 5-Star Winner in the Tech for Teachers STEM category 2018. “Our vision is to equip educators so they become experts in 3D printing, as we believe this is where the future lies and want to invest in it,” said Michelle Chatterley, Head of CREATE. CREATE’s open-source collaborative platform offers high-quality free resources such as lesson plans and project ideas, while it also provides a friendly interactive community with access to supportive CREATE Ambassadors and CREATE hubs. CREATE’s 3D printer range includes Ultimap printers with free lifetime technical support. 

For access, cost and security concerns, an excellent option is YSoft, which offers a streamlined print management and accounting system integrated with a central 3D printer that gives control over any other 3D printers in the vicinity, so student/teacher access can be organised efficiently without compromising user-security.

“3D printing one of the most exciting technologies now available, with new uses constantly being discovered, and ranging from jet engine parts to 3D-printed customised prosthetics and even 3D-printed pizzas for NASA astronauts.” 

Printing the future

By university level, users of 3D printers are the movers and shakers driving creativity into the 21st century as they pioneer new products and directions, often in partnership with specialist research and/or industry leaders. Learning to fail – and learning to fail quicker – is a big design concept, and 3D printing accelerates this process as less time spent making gives more time for actual designing, and consequently a richer soil for creative ideas to flourish and bear fruit. 

Michelle Chatterley thinks the sky’s the limit: “We’re constantly discovering new directions. For example, CREATE is sponsoring Fran Murphy’s* Research PhD, exploring how 3D printing can revolutionise textile production. Her beautiful 3D-printed lace has already had a lot of interest from the fashion industry as the process is significantly quicker, cheaper and more eco-friendly than laborious traditional lace-making.”  

3D printing can even surprise the experts, as curators at Museums Sheffield found when Amelia Knowlson, a doctoral student at the Art and Design Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University, made 3D copies of the beautiful Grice Ivories collection, providing exciting new insights through previously undiscovered details. “For me the 3D scanning and printing process opens up new avenues of exploration that were not previously possible,” said Amelia of the experience. “It encourages play and experimentation leading to new ways of understanding and looking at museum objects.” 

Nick Dulake, Senior Industrial Designer at Design Futures, Sheffield Hallam University, points out that many museum statues are actually copies, and that making copies was the traditional apprenticeship to becoming a great sculptor or painter. “You could say the 3D printer is the modern equivalent of Michelangelo’s chisel. The chisel on its own is just a tool for gouging stone, but in the hands of someone extremely creative like Michelangelo, you end up with a David. I truly believe the 3D printer has the capacity to take us as far as our imaginations can stretch.” 

*Part of the CREATE community