Does 3D printing have a place in schools?

3D printers are now ‘significantly’ more affordable for schools, so will we be seeing more of them in the classroom this year?

By Naomi Webb

In technology news, 3D printing has been creating some of the biggest headlines over the last couple of years. The notion of producing your own products at home with a special printer and plans downloaded from a company’s website is tantalising to say the least – the possibilities the process unlocks will have far-reaching consequences.

3D printers have already produced car parts, clothing, house parts and even, controversially, firearms. As a potentially revolutionary piece of hardware, 3D printing and the creativity it encourages is surely ideal for the classroom. Young imaginations are already being fired up by the technology. As this BBC report highlights, some young people aren’t even waiting for the latest 3D printing technology to be released to schools. Fourteen-year-old Amy Mather prefers instead to use digital design packages and laser cutting to bring ideas to life. She won the European Commission’s first European Digital Girl of the Year Award for her ideas.

And if schools are unable to provide 3D printers in their technology workshops, they could instead teach the principles of the practice using arts and crafts materials from suppliers such as Hope Education until the real thing becomes a viable option. 

Why introduce 3D printers into the classroom?

The philosophy behind 3D printing is as important as the process of producing and assembling object parts. As children explore 3D printing, the line between success and failure is erased: each setback is simply another step towards completing that first project. It becomes okay to make mistakes, and when that happens kids are empowered to experiment.

Young 3D printing pioneers will quickly realise that problem-solving is the most important skill they can call upon. They’ll learn that they can design and make objects to overcome problems and barriers in the world around them – physical items that don’t require specialised knowledge to produce. As such, 3D printing is something that can be tried by everyone. It can be used to advance skills in engineering, maths and model-making. Kids can learn about entire product design cycles in just a few lessons, without the need for complicated concepts and jargon. You can let them loose with their ideas and teach the principles as they go. OpenSCAD is a free download that helps students create using computer-aided design (CAD). 

And why not look to what children already enjoy for inspiration? Take Minecraft, a game that’s all about building items to solve problems. There’s a school-ready version of the game that teaches kids how to design their way around trouble.

 If schools are unable to provide 3D printers in their technology workshops, they could instead teach the principles of the practice using arts and crafts materials

What comes after 3D printing? Well, Amy is rather keen on the 3Doodler, a pen-like device that allows for handheld 3D printing. “You put plastic rods in it and it works a bit like a glue gun,” she says. “It heats up the plastic and extrudes it through its nib and you can draw 3D items with it. You can either draw it first on a flat surface and then assemble it, or you can draw straight up into the air. It’s good for quickly prototyping ideas and being creative but it’s nowhere near as expensive as a 3D printer and you don’t have to have the knowledge of any CAD [computer aided design] software. You can just get on with it and do what you like, swap and change colours and things. I think that’s a very useful tool.”

So, back to the original question and the title of the article. Does 3D printing have a place in schools? Evidently, the answer has to be yes. If 3D printers can inspire such creativity and invention – as demonstrated by the likes of Amy – in our children, then they warrant a permanent place in the classroom. As this blog states, 3D printers are now ‘significantly’ more affordable for schools. Expect to see them being introduced in increasing numbers over the coming years.