Download practically anything you want from Thingiverse and spit it out. Instantly. That has a certain cool factor, that will make you want to print a few things. (Insert photo of a giant bolt I just had to try to print, and of course, the nut to go with it.) I know that 3d printing is like being at “level VCR,” and a few years from now, we’ll be at “Level Netflix,” wondering how in the world we dealt with rewinding video tapes and messing with tracking. It will be exciting to see how filament changes, how printing changes lives, and how being able to literally design and print anything will continue to change the world.
But HOW can this technology impact learning today? You could by 100 3d printers, and unless you change HOW you teach, it won’t. But what COULD the 3d printer enhance in the elementary classroom? Plenty.
1.) Collaboration. Sure, having every kid print something they found on Thingiverse would be fun for the class. But having the kids design something together using Tinkercad, or MorphiApp, and you’ve drawn them into a shared purpose. First, they’ll rely on each other to learn the program. And if the task is authentic? They’ll be brainstorming together, sketching ideas, and creating a shared product. Teamwork makes the dream work, right?
2.) Get Characters In The Story. Find a real problem in the school that students could improve. Design and print a game for younger learners in the school, then teach them to play it. Develop a character, print it, write a story about it, then give it to a younger child… even better? What if the character WAS the younger child, as a super hero, in the story, and printed as an action figure?
3.) Models. After I printed the giant bolt, I thought, printing this five times, in different sizes, would be an excellent way to talk about scale with kids – because they can see it. It could lead to excellent investigations on measurement, volume, and even elapsed time by seeing how long it took to print.
4.) Mystery Object. Put the object in a box, let students peak. Then ask them to write an imaginative story about where the object came from. Did the giant bolt come from the Space Shuttle? Or is it the bolt from the handle of Paul Bunyan’s Ax?
5.) Strength Test: The inside of 3d printed objects is totally interesting engineering. The squares, the honeycomb patterns. How do they relate to animal structures in nature? How strong are they? Will the hold the weight of a brick? How might you replicate the pattern with cardboard to strengthen or design furniture?
6.) Design and print a shipping container for a Pringles chip or other object to protect it. Exchange with another class and see if the design works.
7.) Historically Speaking: Develop, create, and print a new monument celebrating your state (or country’s) history. Or, design an object that would change a historical moment. Print it and rewrite history.
3d printing probably going to be amazing to me even when I’m 80 and I say things like, back in my thirties my prints took 4 hours. Either way, it can bring a whole new level of learning to the classroom, if you set up some situations where kids are in creation mode, or if you allow the creations to bring in new learning opportunities. But a 3d printer also has potential to be an uninspiring “worksheet” that kids repeat, regurgitate, and reprint with. The best part of that? You can make sure that doesn’t happen. Set up the possibilities, be prepared to unclog the extruder, and let them build their learning, one drop of filament at a time. And when you’re 80, you’ll have some cool stories to tell about how you were there when it all began.