The Magic of Invention: Educating with 3D Printers

The Magic of Invention
Anyone who’s seen a 3D printer at work knows they can be absolutely mesmerizing. They can also bring STEM concepts to life for kids!

It’s easy to be mesmerized by a 3D printer at work. The speed and precision of these increasingly popular machines—not to mention the magic of watching an object materialize before your eyes—is inherently fascinating. This process can be particularly stimulating for kids, so it’s no surprise that 3D printing has a world of exciting applications in the classroom. From toys and models that help with math operations to replicas of prehistoric skulls that demonstrate human evolution, the possibilities for using 3D printing in the classroom seem endless.

When Simon Shen, CEO of Kinpo Group (parent company of China-based XYZprinting), announced that China would be adding a 3D printer to each of its elementary schools, it was a testament to the power of this new technology. This policy has been implemented despite the significant barrier of scale. With more than 19% of the world’s total population, China has a whopping 400,000 or so elementary schools—four times the number of schools in the U.S. as of 2010.

The recent emphasis on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in the U.S. prompts the question of whether, or how, the U.S. might follow suit. While STEM-related jobs are booming (the Department of Education predicts 14% growth by 2020), the subjects have been a tough sell for American students. That’s where the magic of 3D printing can play an especially powerful role. Because the technology so rapidly transforms theory into practice—and practice into tangible object—it offers kids a much-needed tactile understanding of STEM concepts. That could translate into a growing number of eager STEM scholars and professionals in the years to come.

Ed Irving, a Physical Science Teacher in Seattle, was impressed by China’s investment in 3D printing. Irving’s curriculum focuses primarily on physics and chemistry, and he’s struck by the way that 3D printing can bring these subjects to life. “In any science class, the concepts are so abstract. We can illustrate some of these, like chemical bonding, with a 2D drawing, but in many cases it’s a lot more effective for students to visualize that in a 3D model.”

Irving also noted that the uses for 3D printing aren’t limited to STEM subjects. “I interned at a STEM school that had a 3D printer,” he remembered, “and nearly every subject area found a way to use it! Even in English classes; they used the printer to illustrate their understanding and to build dioramas. You’re only limited by your imagination.”

The learning curve for instructors does of course take time--but then again, the computer labs introduced to public schools in the 1980’s also required training. And then there’s the question of cost. At $400 to more than $6,000 retail, 3D printers aren’t inexpensive. But as Irving noted, if the machines are used for a decade, they’ll be a worthwhile investment. And with new emphasis on results-oriented education funding, it may be worth considering. Like 3D printing itself, the expense could yield tangible results!