Bringing #3DPrinting into the Classroom

Last year I decided to try a cool PBL (project-based learning) activity with my students, which combined multiple subjects: social studies and language arts integrated into STEM skills and products.

The “Parthenon Project” was designed to be somewhat challenging and to get my 6th graders to use and apply their knowledge in new ways, ways that simulated real-life problem-solving scenarios. One of the end products students needed to create was a scale model of the Parthenon, using free SketchUp CAD design software.

Earlier in the year, there had been a lot of resistance to going paperless — despite being “digital natives”, my students had been indoctrinated into our antiquated, pencil-and-paper classrooms.  They had just spent 6 years learning that “learning” = “books and paper” whereas their association with technology was that it is a device for entertainment and socializing… YouTube, video games, FaceBook and Instagram and Vine.  I just named pretty much every purpose my students used their devices for.  Nobody had taught them that computers and the internet were invented to be tools, and since they weren’t ever using them that way in school (other than one hour every other week when they came to me for “computer lab”), they had no way to know any better.

To make an already-long story short, the kids had a difficult time accepting that modern technology could be used to do many of the things they were used to doing with other media:

  • eBooks
  • art
  • most surprisingly, models

They had done the obligatory models of things like California Missions, using clay and popsicle sticks, etc.  Nobody had ever taught them that you can get more precision, without spending a dime, simply by modeling in the computer.

“Yeah, but what if you want to touch or hold it?”

That’s when I showed them 3D modeling and, knowing that we had a MakerBot replicator at the local high school that I could get access to, I made the promise that I would take the most perfect model made by one of the teams and would print it out to put on display in the class.

I had feared my students might not be able to handle the challenging assignment, but to the contrary it showed just how much they could achieve when they were motivated and excited about what they were doing.  CAD design and the promise of being able to bring a vision into a physical reality at the push of a button helped do that.

So this year I decided I would have students make models of even more iconic buildings and architecture from our Ancient Civilizations social studies curriculum – The Great Pyramid, the Ziggurat of Ur, maybe more.  To do that, I would need my own 3D printer so that I wouldn’t have to rely on if and when the high school teacher was available to help me use his.  An even bigger motivator, if I did this, would be to actually print models for my students to have and to keep — if they were successful in their CAD designs.

Thus began the process of investigating the newest, most affordable 3D printers that I could bring into my classroom to encourage students to create, to produce, to invent, to solve problems… to use modern technology for something more than mindless entertainment, and to get them curious and excited about where progress and innovation can take us.

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