3D Printing in Education: Beyond STEM
Posted on April 27, 2016 by Mara Hitner
Many educators think that 3D printers are only used in math and science classes. Not true! Meet two educators who are getting creative with 3D printing in the classroom and achieving breakthrough results in both K-12 and higher education settings.

Now that 3D printers have come down in price and size, one of the most exciting applications of the technology has been in the classroom. When I mention “3D printing in education” one might immediately think of buzzwords like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) or STEAM (throw Arts in there) which are important competencies we want our kids to be proficient in.


MatterHackers works with all sorts of inspiring teachers and classrooms to get them up and running with the 3D printers they need, and here are two unique stories worth some extra attention.

The first story belongs to Jefferson Middle School, which is creating a 3D printing curriculum for at-risk English learners. Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a language arts teacher, and newly assigned part-time Ed Tech Project-Based Learning TOSA (Teacher On Special Assignment) at Jefferson. She has been leading classrooms for 16 years, and has been documenting her recent 3D printing journey for Edutopia, and on her own website, www.TweenTeacher.com. A self-professed layman and tech newbie, Wolpert-Gawron's imagination was sparked when she realized how 3D printing could impact student engagement. She also appreciated the philosophy of the open-source “maker movement” behind the printers to try and change the world.

“I started thinking about new technology that would engage kids, which we could learn together,” explains Wolpert-Gawron “combined with a need at the middle school level to move beyond me-centric thinking, and think about how we can change the world.”

Wolpert-Gawron has come up with a number innovative ways to engage students, incorporating the process of 3D printing in her lessons just as much as the project being printed. She is developing a curriculum particularly for ELL (English Language Learners) students who are having trouble speaking and writing English. This curriculum would give the kids something more interesting to speak and write about. Statistically, these kids are dropping out of school due to disengagement with the traditional learning process, so there needs to be a better solution. PBL (Project-Based Learning) units on 3D printing e-NABLE assistive devices for other children is a great jumping-off point for classrooms to get started with this technology.

“Worksheets will never teach grit and persistence.” Wolpert-Gawron explains. “I wanted to acknowledge high-level reflection on failure through writing exercises about problems and solutions encountered using the 3D printers. Adults can see failure as a step forward in itself, but kids see it as a wall.”

An e-NABLE hand being printed in Wolpert-Gawron's classroom.


In addition to tracking their 3D printing progress in writing, students will also be writing formal letters to the recipients of the e-NABLE hands they produce. To teach the writing process, for every hand they send out through the school year, students will return to their original letter and revise it, acknowledging growth in their writing from the first hand of the school year to the last.    

Another project will incorporate creating Rube Goldberg machines (complex, step-by-step machine to perform a simple task – like the game Mousetrap) to encourage kids to think and write about sequencing.

“Sequencing can be challenging, especially for these at-risk kids who are not processing information the same way as their peers,” says Wolpert-Gawron  “With the display of the machine, they can write and speak about the steps in a much more concrete way.” 

Wolpert-Gawron sees 3D printing in the classroom as an opportunity for students AND educators to move teaching forward together by getting the technology into the classrooms and see where the kids take it, rather than waiting for curriculum and standards to formally be devised and distributed.

Students finishing a print just hot off the bed.


“The ultimate goal with the 3D printers would be to create a classroom that ripples out to the community at large.” Wolpert-Gawron projects. “Perhaps creating websites to solicit needs from other communities, and have a real impact solving problems so the kids expand out of that ‘me-ness’ to think of others.”

Wolpert-Gawron is about to launch the school’s first Invention Convention, where 600 student participants from 6th to 8th grade will develop prototypes of new products using Tinkercad for design, and use the school’s five Ultimaker 3D printers and Crafty 3D printing pens to iterate on their ideas and bring them to life.  

“The 3D printing pens are AWESOME!” gushes Wolpert-Gawron. “Elementary and primary level kids live in a concrete world while trying to learn the abstract, and the 3D printing pen is an easy tactile medium for anyone to work with. You take abstract concepts like letter and number recognition, and show the immediacy of how concrete your imagination can become.”  

Students engaging with the 3D printing pen.


Another goal is to roll these ideas out to other classrooms, and not have this classroom be an island. Wolpert-Gawron acknowledges that change will happen slowly, but her district already has three elementary schools interested in 3D printers for their makerspace. Wolpert-Gawron hopes that once solid curriculum is designed, it may give educators that final incentive to try something new.

“Curriculum is my thing. I love it. 3D printing has helped to open up another way of thinking about curriculum. It’s so exciting,” says Wolpert-Gawron.

On the other side of the broad education spectrum, 3D printing is making the rapid distribution of up-to-the-minute anthropological discoveries to higher education reality. Which brings us to our second story, Indiana University South Bend is using 3D printed replicas to bring recently discovered fossil specimens off the page and into the lab. When University-level students can (literally) get their hands on new developments in their field quickly, these discoveries can immediately be incorporated into potentially life-changing research. Darryl R. Ricketts, M.S., Adjunct Instructor, Anthropology at Indiana University South Bend is doing just that.

In 2013, a new species of hominid (early humans) was discovered by a team of anthropologists in Johannesburg, South Africa. When the team published their findings in late 2015, Ricketts saw an opportunity to translate their 3D scans of an ancient skull and bottom jaw into .stl files that his students could print in the classroom for a more hands-on learning.

Ancient specimens in the anthropology department’s material cultures lab.

Photo credit: Traci Foster-The Preface


“3D printing is especially useful for validation research," says Ricketts. "Papers were published using the volume of the brain of this species to figure out what happened to them. With these replicas, undergraduate and graduate students can check volume metrics on their own and validate the findings." 

Ricketts hopes more researchers and museums will begin to post their 3D files online so this can happen more often. 

"Digital recreation is becoming a very large aspect of anthropology and archeology," he explains. "It's also exciting to use geographical scan data of entire digs to replicate in 3D at reduced scale, and get a very tangible idea of how these fossils are retrieved.

Ricketts' 3D printed jaw and partial skull from ancient fossils.


Ricketts brought his personal 3D printer to the anthropology department’s material cultures lab.

“Universities need proof-of-concept to invest in new technology," he says. "Experimenting with more durable materials like nylon, wood, and metallic composite filaments will help make the case for useable 3D printed models which will last for more than one semester in the classroom, and make the grant writing process easier." 

Ricketts has digitally reconstructed the partial skull and jaw and posted the files on Thingiverse for anyone to download and print. He plans to digitally combine the hand and feet bones into one dual-extruded printable piece in the future.

Rickett's 3D printed hand from ancient fossil.


Rickett's 3D printed foot from ancient fossil.


The passion Ricketts brings to the classroom for this particular application for 3D printing is apparent – and contagious – in this local news interview about this exciting fossil find.

3D scanning and printing has played a role in Ricketts’ own continuing education as well. While researching his Master’s in Forensic Anthropology at Boston University School of Medicine, Ricketts indulged his strong affinity for fetal osteology by scanning and printing several fetal specimens. These models can be found on his Etsy page, which helps to offset costs of materials for the classroom.

"The future for 3D printing at the University level is unlimited," says Ricketts. "There are no low-cost collections of models to teach fetal osteology in anatomy classes down to the high school level. Even printing a two foot long DNA scan for a genetics class shows an astonishing boost for retention. Anything tactile, students remember it better."   

3D printing in schools is the most exciting application I can think of. When the next generation looks around the world and imagines a better way to accomplish tasks, they will say, "I'll just make it and print it. Of course. I've been doing that since grade school." That's when real innovation happens. Kudos to all educators taking the plunge into this technology. If you're an educator wanting to get involved, MatterHackers is here to help with education discounts, helpful how-tos, and friendly advice. Call us anytime!

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