The world in 3D: how 3D printing is making a difference to education

As 3D printing becomes more common in our schools and universities, Val Proctor looks at the benefits of this innovative technology, particularly for SEN students, and what the industry is doing to minimise the barriers to entry

Classroom technology has changed substantially since the 1950s, when students used a slide rule for calculations. That invention is a far cry from today’s use of electronic whiteboards and iPads. And now the future seems to lie in 3D printers, which are not only being used for subjects like design technology, but for cross-curricular activities too. Research also indicates that being able to hold a physical model in your hands is of enormous benefit to Special Educational Needs (SEN) children.

3D printing involves making a solid 3D object from a digital computer-aided design (CAD) file. The printer adds successive layers of material together until the final object has been created. Today’s technology can handle almost any material, including cellulose, which is sugar-based rather than plastics-based, which has obvious environmental benefits. 

One of the success stories of using 3D printing in the classroom comes from a school that Dremel, a manufacturing company, partners with in the United States. Teacher Michael Miller uses 3D printing to teach primary school children design skills, as well as using the printer to bring other subjects to life. When one of his classes was learning about the life of animals by raising chickens from eggs and one of the chicks was born with only one leg, the class designed and printed a prosthetic leg for the chick.

Accessibility is key for SEN students 

If teachers are willing to understand and use this technology more widely, it will benefit children’s learning, particularly in STEM subjects, but also in most other subjects.

In history classes, students can handle 3D replicas of historical artefacts rather than looking at pictures of them, while in biology, models of organs and the skeletal system can be printed to show students how the body works. 

But 3D printing can have more practical – and life-changing – uses for people with disabilities, and brings a little bit of magic to their lives.

Take the case of Elliott Roberts, a visually impaired student at the National Star College in Gloucester who needs help everywhere he goes. His fellow students Kristian Harrison and Steve Martin came up with a unique solution – making a personalised 3D tactile map of the house in which they all live.

Steve and Kristian learned to use special software to create the 3D map which they then printed on a 3D printer. The map has raised sections with different shapes so Elliott can differentiate between the rooms, enabling him to get around much more easily.

Paul Croft, founder of the CREATE Education Project, is passionate about the use of 3D printing and how it may transform pedagogies. “Elliot’s example is a demonstration of exactly what this technology should be doing,” he says. 

“If we can think about the use of 3D printing differently, that’s when it gets really exciting. I can say hand on heart that every single industry will benefit from these skills.”

3D printing can transform pedagogy

Andy Simpson, MD of Angus 3D Solutions, adds that 3D printing is being used to create specific teaching aids, for example sign language hands that show each sign. “This aids the teaching of sign language immeasurably,” he says.

Cin-Yee Ho, director of marketing at XYZprinting, believes technology is levelling the playing field for SEN students. “3D printing, in particular, enables students to be creative and design products in a way that helps them express their talents which may not be possible in a traditional classroom environment,” she says.

When a visually impaired student in America asked his teacher what an ox was, the assistive technology specialist realised his student had never touched an ox so had no reference point. Fortunately, his department had a 3D printer, so he downloaded an ox file from free CAD file site Thingiverse and, five hours later, had a plastic ox for his student. “As soon as the boy held it in his hands, he said: ‘Oh, I get it now,’” recalled the teacher. “It was that simple.”

3D applications extend beyond manufacturing

3D printing technology is a well-established industrial technology used in a range of sectors, from aerospace to consumer goods. But as the hardware and software become more affordable, its applications are becoming more widespread. In turn, students moving into careers outside the design and technology world will need knowledge of the tech. 

The dental technology sector uses it to produce tooth implants, McLaren uses it for production parts for their F1 vehicles and the international space station has one on-board to enable the printing of files sent to it through space. The creative industries are also including it in graphic design, computer games/multi-media design and in mixed media arts.

Jean-Pierre Lihou, business development manager at Dremel DigiLab, explains that some of the groundbreaking applications, such as the 3D printing of bone, living tissue and organs, are changing the world in which we live. “We have a responsibility to ensure people leaving education have an understanding of this important technology,” he says.

Medical innovations

Understanding 3D printing is becoming increasingly important in the medical profession. The Gregorio Marañón Hospital in Madrid, for example, is printing bespoke prosthetics for their patients to optimise fit, functionality and comfort. 3D printing is also being used to model internal organs and plan surgeries, which aid surgeons to accurately operate, saving time and money in the process. 

Simpson concurs: “Industries like automotive and aerospace are using it not just to manufacture parts, but to create training aids and use these to carry out hands-on training for the assembly and testing of products.”

3D printing is also used in the film industry to create custom-made costumes. 

Understanding the design and modelling process is a valuable 21st-century skill

It was used to produce Iron Man’s suit in Iron Man 2, many costumes in Black Panther and the design and creation of the Stormtrooper helmets in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Andy Thompson, curriculum manager for construction and engineering at Walsall College, highlights that 3D printing as an academic subject is yet to take off. “Additive manufacturing is a very small part of the engineering industry. However, as the technology advances, more organisations are investing and many of our students will be using this technology in the future,” he says.

Paul Woodward, a secondary school teacher and Dremel ambassador, believes that 3D printing is now an essential part of the UK curriculum: “3D printers are going to be an invaluable tool for design students in the new GCSE and A-level syllabus because of the benefits rapid prototyping will bring to the non-examination assessment,” he explains. 

Barriers to entry

Cost has been the prime barrier to the use of 3D technology, particularly for primary schools which have limited budgets. However, this is changing. The entry price range for 3D printers is currently around £2,500 but sub-£300 models can be modified to work just as, if not more, effectively as pricier models. Basic software for 3D printers is available for free to education institutions, meaning it’s a cost-effective way to bring these products into the classroom.

We have a responsibility to ensure people leaving education have an understanding of this important technology. Jean-Pierre Lihou

However, Posey is cautious. “Although printers are getting smaller and cheaper and thus more acceptable, too many schools have still not had any hands-on experience of one.” But, she adds, the technology is “quite incredible” and believes that if its applications – such as printing chocolate, semi-precious materials, icing, and wings on a plane – are more widely publicised, there’s no end to the uptake.

Thompson says a lack of hands-on opportunities for students, due to health and safety or time restrictions, are also a factor. “While this isn’t something that can change overnight, colleges and universities will start to deliver sessions to students where they complete a prototype design using software applications and witness the final stages of print production for a 3D model.”

What of the future?

Croft believes the great innovation will be the realisation of what this technology can do. “Tangible learning outcomes are best achieved by having physical objects. If we can demystify some of the perceived ‘difficult’ knowledge, there is no greater motivator from a human perspective than the reward of making something.” 


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