Case Study: 3D Printing in K-12 and Higher Education
3D printing is quickly becoming an indispensable tool for teaching concepts across all subjects while engaging students like never before.
As technology keeps moving inexorably forward, the skills needed to design, build and operate the machines of now and the future happen on the ground level. In schools, libraries, and maker spaces all across the world children and adults are gaining the knowledge needed to keep relevant in their professions, become more adept at their current trades, as well as learn new skills for personal hobbies and artistic creation.
This article is a case study into how 3D printing has specifically impacted learners at the high school and collegiate levels and what it means for them and their futures. What are the ramifications of 3D design and manufacturing for these learning institutions? How will 3D printing impact the world at large in the coming years now that these students are moving into the workforce with new skills in the additive manufacturing realm?
At the community level, non-students are usually introduced to 3D printing by observing it in makerspaces, periodicals like Make: Magazine, and libraries that have been equipped with their own creative spaces. In public, accessible spaces like this anyone can produce items that normally would require expensive, capital equipment expenditures or renting equipment normally found only in industrial production. These spaces bring an easy, approachable solution to the masses.
We have already had the privilege of being able to share the stories of many people who are using the capabilities of 3D printing to educate people, like Rebecca Buckhoff; to enrich the curriculum for specialized learners, like Neal McKenzie; and to bring 3D printing to the attention of new learners in MakerSpaces, like Rumela Bose.
We have also seen 3D printing used by students to increase the survivability of coral reef habitats and wildlife, with Emily Ruhl, as well as lesson plans designed with 3D printed components centered around spinal cord alignment, with Jacob Stanton.
While the 3D printing movement is starting to move out of its beginning stages, it is quickly becoming the tool of choice for many ‘ordinary’ crafters and hackers, as well as large corporate entities. With the cost of materials being low, as well as quick turnaround time for rapid iteration, the 3D printer as a prototyping tool is rapidly being adopted by companies like Volkswagen, Boeing, Hollywood prop makers and more. By giving the user the capability to ‘fail often and fail quickly’, more and more people have access to a tool that can quickly and easily be used to bring ideas to life.
Our first case study subject is a team of students from Hobart, Indiana - Space Cadets FTC Team 14400; a BSA Explorer Post that is using 3D printing to build and improve their robotic champions in a variety of competitions, both local and national. Jerry Fuller, the Builder/Programmer of the team, explains the various benefits of having a 3D printer available for their needs.
“3D printing has allowed us to do much more rapid prototyping. We can design something, print it, and make changes to the model until we have our final product. Our prints are some of the main skeletons of our robot. Some hold our main controller to the robot while others keep our entire arm assembly together. We also have a large part attached to our arm to collect game elements. Our prints have significantly improved the structural integrity of the robot.”
But once a 3D printer is available, and others know you have one and know how to use it, it becomes even more of a tool. “We use our prints not only on our robot but to help us with other tasks. For example, we wanted to make custom pencils for our team so we printed a jig so they would engrave properly. Another example is when we broke a light switch and made a new one. We have also helped other people with our prints; for example, our robot communicates with the drivers via a cell phone. We make holders so the phones mount securely on the bot and we make them for any team who needs one, and we have been asked by a local fire department to design and print an IPad Pro Mount for their trucks.”
Another advantage of having a 3D printer are the various materials that are able to be utilized. Not only does the team use PETG and PLA for the structural parts of their robot, but they are also using TPU; a flexible, rubber-like material to introduce new capabilities that will help it adapt to various tasks in upcoming competitions. This gives their robot a ‘swiss-army-knife’ set of tools to perform well at many tasks, giving the team an edge over the competition.
From one of our previous stories, we also have another robotics and programming guru, Sean Cheong, who is on a quest to create a humanoid-like robot able to assist people who need help with various tasks. Sean credits most of his success to the quick and inexpensive iteration process needed to design, prototype, and test parts to make sure they work together well in concert to create the desired effect.
"3D printing really enables me to create changes in my design, 3D print the part and then test to fit much more rapidly than any other method available. With the robot, I also use a lot of off-the-shelf parts, so being able to adapt the designs to accommodate all the various motors, wires and cabling means I need an easy way to modify a design if the part doesn't initially fit. Any tolerance issues I had - such as too much friction, or pieces fitting too tightly - were easily solved with a quick redesign and reprint. There was no massive turnaround time waiting for my iterations - it happened quick, so the whole process moved forward much faster than I hoped for."
But what does Sean expect to see in the future for students and 3D printing? "The sky is really the limit. When I first told people that I was going to build a full-size robot, I think they were skeptical. Once they saw how quick and easy it was to design and print my parts and move through the iteration process to perfect a printed part, they really started to believe that it could be done. I think that students, as long as they have access to technology, will start to adopt it more and more. It does take a lot of work, and the process can be frustrating, but in time I know I learned a lot about 3D printers and printing, and I couldn't do what I do with my designs without it."
For the high school environment, whether it is a science-focused institution or not, 3D printing opens avenues for all students to create on a level unknown until now. The ability to create a physical object for any school subject has traditionally been limited to wood or clay, with traditional joining methods like screws, glue, and nails. Now, anyone can create, and many times find, a 3D design that they can almost plug-and-play into existence. For students that are not inclined to spatial manipulation of materials to create models, materials and items, 3D printing is a silver bullet for a newly evolved outlet for creativity.
Scott Swaaley, previously featured in the film Most Likely to Succeed for his work with MAKING in schools and now CEO of MAKESafe Tools, sees 3D printing and fabrication machinery as a new dimension that has unlocked an unprecedented level of creation in schools and in business - but he didn’t always see it that way.
“When 3D printing first started showing up in schools, there were a lot of bugs that needed to be worked out. The printers weren’t reliable, were seldom repaired, and there simply weren't enough printers around to keep students and teachers meaningfully engaged and even if you had a good printer, the 3D modeling software was prohibitively complex and expensive. These were all huge barriers to adoption in a traditional educational setting. It certainly wasn’t something that I felt was a good addition to my toolkit as an educator at the time.”
“Now we have access to more reliable machines which takes a huge burden of time off educators and students alike. We are also seeing prices come down so educators can purchase more than one 3D printer for their space. If you only have one 3D printer, and you’re trying to get students to iterate on their designs, then the number of hours of print time becomes astronomical. One 3D printer just can’t handle a full class load like that. But with additional, less expensive machines, we can now really get into the meat of that process and use 3D printers to supplement learning outcomes without creating a bottleneck. Also, with free, easy-to-use 3D modeling programs like TinkerCad and Fusion 360, students have full access to the design and creation process from beginning to end.”
But having the technology available isn’t enough; you need engagement and self-motivated students.
“A turning point for me was when I saw the social effect 3D printing had in the classroom. 3D printing had become interesting to a wide variety of students and transcended typical gender and interest gaps. It had become 'cool' and social pressure and friendly competition would motivate students to improve upon existing designs and challenge each other to learn more about the process. This motivation was easily leveraged into increased engagement in the classroom and 3D printing became not just a tool for students to make things but a tool for teachers to increase student engagement. 3D printing is shaping up to be a fascinating technology and I'm eager to see where it leads.”
Technology Professional Development Specialist, Rebecca Buckhoff, creates and implements 3D printing curriculum for the Moreno Valley Unified School District. She also sees 3D printing as something that can be used across all fields of study in K-12 education as a means to increase creativity and communication.
“With 3D Printing, the students and teachers I work with are able to understand something in a completely different way than they previously imagined. This increases their creativity. They are limited only by their imagination. I am inspired by a variety of different sources and I hope my students learn how to channel their creative inspiration.”
“I love the creativity behind it. It’s not just printing a plastic object, it is an act of creation. From the modeling and filament choices to finishing and photography, the options for 3D printing are limitless.”
One of the major advantages of this new technology and its adoption is the community that has grown up around it to support members from around the world. “One of the things I am really enjoying is the 3D printing community. I like having the opportunity to get feedback, make friends and share ideas with a global community. The best connections I have are with other educators and women in making. The perspective of women in making is valuable because it is a voice that isn’t heard often enough. Our young girls need to realize that making is for them, too. Young women are preparing for these new careers in 3D modeling and printing - and those careers need to prepare for them because they are stepping up.”
Of course, these new fabrication methods are not limited to K-12 education. At the college level, 3D printing sustains and enables a whole new generation of creativity and innovation.
At the University of British Columbia (UBC), Leonardo Walcher is the Aerostructure Team Lead for the UBC rocket engineering design team. Their primary goal this year is to create a supersonic rocket that will reach 30,000 feet in altitude, as well as enabling their Frequent Flyers builders, who routinely create rockets that reach 10,000 feet.
Previously, the nosecones and fins on rockets at the college level were created using various methods of molding parts. But with 3D printing, there are almost infinite possibilities for design applications.
“While building our first rocket (Cypress) we found that 3D printing was the most accessible way to create a nosecone with complex geometry. We used an LD-Hackk curve - any other method would have required making a mold. We use ABS plastic because it is RF-transparent - a necessity when launching a rocket you hope to recover.”
“Since then, we’ve found it to be a great way to prototype, and it has continued to be a reliable way to produce internal, and external components of the rocket. Our avionics systems are organized with the help of 3D printed mounts, and even as we transition to fiberglass nose cones, 3D printing has provided a good way to manufacture molds to fit any geometry we want.”
“They have allowed us to explore lots of possible designs, without having to worry about complex geometries. 3D printed parts are an integral part of our rockets; having the ability to custom design, and quickly have an object that fits our needs allows us to develop our engineering skills, and put what we learn into action.”
While UBC focuses on earthly pursuits, the Colorado School of Mines is concentrating on a more alien application for their 3D printing endeavor - mining the moon itself.
Colby Moxham, the Team Lead for the Center for Space Resources NASA Robotic Mining Competition, has adopted the use of additive manufacturing on a small scale to create possibilities for real other-worldly uses. As the team’s sponsorship literature explains:
“The Robotic Mining Competition is one of NASA’s premier space robotics competitions. For the tenth year in a row, the NASA RMC will pit the nation’s top engineering schools against each other to design, build, and test the toughest, fastest, and most rugged lunar mining robots. Like a mining version of BattleBots, two teams at a time will go head-to-head in an arena filled with the most realistic lunar regolith simulant ever created. Each robot must navigate the simulated lunar landscape, dodge treacherous craters and boulders, and make it to the Mining Zone on the other side. Once there, they will dig through a foot of regolith to get at the gravel that represents valuable lunar ice. Then it’s a race against the clock as they try to make as many trips and harvest as much buried gravel as possible before their ten minutes are up.”
Using Dassault SolidWorks to design their parts, they have started to experiment with topology optimization, as well as use AutoDesk MeshMixer to repair and modify the .stl file before printing them. These design experiences are becoming the norm, and Colby and his team use them and 3D printing to great advantage in their designs. It lowers the time from concept to product, as well as decreased turn around time on iterations of design changes.
“As a competition team with finite resources and a tight timeline, 3D printing gives us the ability to rapidly prototype, iterate, and fabricate. We can 3D print parts that would be otherwise difficult or expensive to machine and do so with less time and equipment than required for machining or other traditional manufacturing techniques.”
“We’re able to 3D print replacement parts as we need them, print weight optimized parts, or create things that would otherwise be impossible to manufacture. We’re also able to build significantly more custom parts then we would otherwise be able to.”
While the Space Concordia team from Concordia University in Montreal also has eyes on 3D printing components for Mars rovers and rocketry, they are also advancing their college competitions into satellite design.
Space Concordia, supported by Concordia University faculty, is building a satellite, scheduled to launch in 2021, as one of 15 teams selected by the Canadian Space Agency in the Canadian CubeSat Project. The Canadian CubeSat Project (CCP) was announced by the Canadian Space Agency in April 2017. The CCP is providing professors in post-secondary institutions with an opportunity to engage their students in a real space mission. Space Concordia's entry into the project entered development in summer 2018. The goal of this satellite is to study the impact of climate change on Kluane Lake in Yukon and to demonstrate the viability of a high-performance flight computer for future CubeSat missions.
Daniel Berry, the Science Team Mechanical Co-lead for Space Concordia's Robotics Division explains how 3D printing has impacted his role on the team. "When I joined Space Concordia I started working in their robotics division where they are competing in three international Mars rover competitions. No matter what I’m working on, 3D printing is essential to prototyping and testing my designs. My first project was to design camera mounts to attach to the rover and allow the cameras to pan and tilt. Holding in my hands a design that I spent weeks on was an amazing feeling, and especially since I was just starting to learn how to design these things on the computer. Now I’m working on a way for the rover to collect soil so that we can perform science experiments to search for signs of life."
Daniel also believes that 3D printing makes it easy to implement structural changes and personal touches to the rover project. "The robotics team tries to keep as many parts of the rover 3D printed as possible as it really lowers the weight of our projects. They also allow us to test our 'restaurant napkin' ideas that have the potential to improve our machines without either having to put in the effort of doing the research or putting in the time to manufacture. I personally also love how I can use the prints to add color to the rover. That added customizability I believe is really underestimated, gotta represent the team colors too!"
Projects by the Spacecraft Division by Space Concordia for their satellite competitions include CONSAT-1, which placed first at the CDSC in 2010-2012. CONSAT-1 was designed to study the radiation patterns of the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA), which is a region where the earth’s Van Allen belt comes closest to the Earth’s surface and is infamous for creating strange fluctuations in radiation intensity. Undergoing three iterations, their next satellite design, Aleksander I through III shared a mission: to study the long-term performance of a new self-healing material in a microgravity environment. If successful, this material would protect spacecraft from frequent impacts from micrometeoroids and orbital debris. This project also included the development of a ground station segment. The newest design mentioned earlier, CubeSat, is anticipated to be Concordia’s first object in orbit in 2021.
Some of the similarities and common feedback we received from all of our case study subjects were:
- Lower cost of entry would help more groups and individuals adopt the technology.
- Lower cost of materials would also help.
- Expanding capabilities like dual-extrusion, larger print volumes, higher temperatures, and printing with abrasive materials while maintaining lower costs.
- Expanding the engineering-grade materials available for a wider range of applications.
- Wider availability and lower cost of engineering-level 3D modeling software.
Of course, 3D printing has come a long way from where it started - gone are the days of the refrigerator-sized boxes with six square inches of build volume and manual slicing. The explosion of small companies developing FDM and SLA printer technologies means that the world is falling into a new era of home-scale industrial applications up to 3D printed building technologies. With more robust software, widely accessible materials for fabrication of new machinery (3D print a 3D printer!), as well as a more involved and collaborative community means 3D printing is quickly moving into the mainstream for almost every segment in education, industry, and commerce you can imagine.
Thank you to all of our contributors for their time and insight for this article. Included below you will find links to their projects and websites for more information on how they are using 3D printing to change the world.
University of British Columbia Rocket Team
Colorado School of Mines NASA Robotic Miner
Space Concordia, Concordia University in Montreal
First Tech Challenge Team 14400 Space Cadets
Nueva School, San Mateo
Moreno Valley USD - Rebeca Buckhoff
MakeSafe Tools - Scott Swaaley
Project ‘Bot 44 - Sean Cheong
Sean’s new endeavor as Lead Electrical Engineer for Stria Labs - get more information here: http://www.stria.org/