3D Printing: Coming to a Classroom or Museum Near You

As the sizes and prices of 3D printers shrink, students—and their teachers—are discovering new and creative ways to put them to work.

In museums and classrooms across the country, 3D printers are teaching design and engineering, bringing historic treasures into young hands, and letting budding inventors try and try again.

If 3D printing—which builds an object layer by layer based on precise, computer-assisted design specifications—hasn’t come to a school or museum near you yet, you can bet it’s on its way. Some industry watchers predict 2014 will be a big year for 3D in the classroom. While top-of-the-line models still cost a pretty penny, CNN has reported some smaller, stripped-down 3D printers are selling for only $200-$300.

The technology has already made quite a splash. As Pittsburgh’s own Gregg Behr, executive director of the Grable Foundation, recently pointed out in the Huffington Post, “People are already using 3D printers to make edible food and artificial body parts (what?!).” No kidding. (Read more about those body parts here.)

Since 2011, DIY-ers of all ages have flocked to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh for a chance to play around with the 3D printer in its MAKESHOP. “I’m a big believer that if you provide materials for kids and if you provide them with inspiration and you provide them with mentors, they will be inspired,” Jane Werner, the museum’s executive director, told us last year.

Here are just a few ways 3D printing is inspiring young people’s learning in museums and classrooms around the country.

Print Your Own Dino Bones

Or animal skeletons, or archeological finds from ancient civilizations, or other replicas of artifacts students don’t normally get to touch. At New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, students explore the intersection of paleontology and technology by examining allosaurus bones and using 3D printing to make a model skeleton. “It really taught me how paleontologists reconstruct and study dinosaurs and how they deal with disarticulated bones…and broken bones,” said Jordan, an 8th-grader, in this video about the experience.

Last November, the Smithsonian Institution launched a 3D scanning and printing project that makes more of its treasures accessible worldwide. You can browse the 3D collection, or sign up to be notified about the spring release of Abraham Lincoln: The Mind behind the Mask, a new, interdisciplinary resource for high school teachers that combines 3D images and prints of the two life masks taken of Lincoln—before and after he assumed the presidency—and shows the drastic physical changes he underwent.

Make and Bake

At The Browning School in New York City, kindergartners aren’t just baking cookies—they’re making the cookie cutters, too. Engineering has become part of the curriculum across the grades, from 3D-printed cookie cutters to homemade Lego-style building blocks. You can see photos and video of their work here.

To broaden access to the technology, MakerBot has developed a 3D printing bundle and encourages public school teachers to request it on DonorsChoose.org.

Tinker ‘Til You Get It Right

At Black Pine Circle School in Berkeley, California, middle school teacher Christine Mytko runs an afterschool Maker Club and also uses her 3D printer for classroom projects. The Maker Club is a great place to test out a variety of ideas and to keep testing and trying until you get it right. Read about one student’s epic journey to build an iPad stand here. (Mytko was also recently profiled in the Atlantic  about STEAM learning.)

Build Prototypes for Local Businesses

Since 2008, students at Chico High School in Chico, California, have been using 3D printing to build fast, accurate prototypes for local companies, starting with a water bottle lid for Kleen Kanteen. IT instructor Mike Bruggeman now has two 3D printers in his classroom and his engineering and architecture students continue to develop prototypes for other companies. You can read more about their work here.

Win Competitions

At Benilde-St. Margaret’s School, a Catholic school in a Minneapolis suburb, science teacher Timothy Jump leads high school students in Advanced Competitive Science, a three-year program focused on engineering. In 2004 his students won the US Robocup Rescue engineering competition, building an urban rescue robot that outperformed models built by students in prestigious university engineering programs. Having a 3D printer on site cuts down the time involved in creating and testing prototypes, which accelerates student learning. “Students are fascinated by the printer,” Jump said in this case study. “They’re just mesmerized that this technology is even possible.”

And maybe, if your students really get into it, they’ll build themselves an energy-efficient car like the Urbee 2. This electric/methanol hybrid car is built from 3D-printed components, which should eventually make mass production of the vehicle cheaper and more sustainable. In 2015 it will cross the US on less than 10 gallons of gas.


Photo/ Don DeBold

Published February 06, 2014