The future of 3D printing in education

The Engineer reports that Simon Biggs, Education Liaison Officer for Wales at global engineering and scientific technology company Renishaw discusses the current use of 3D printers as an educational tool.

In the 1950s, the slide rule was the most commonly used classroom tool for mathematical and engineering calculation, but by the mid 1970s, the newer technology – the electronic scientific calculator – made the slide rule almost obsolete. Since then, there has been an explosion of new technologies hitting the classroom for engineering and mathematical learning including the computer, the iPad and more recently 3D printers.

3D printing is a well-established industrial technology for prototyping and manufacturing, particularly popular with the aerospace and defence sectors. Also known as additive manufacturing (AM), 3D printing is the process of making a solid 3D object from a digital computer aided design (CAD) file. The printer adds successive layers of material together until the final object has been created. This is different from traditional manufacturing methods like CNC machining, which removes material from a solid block using rotating tools or cutters.

Understanding and using this growing technology can benefit children’s learning, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects but also beyond these more traditional fields in music, design technology, history, geography and biology. In 2013, a pilot project introduced 3D printers into 21 schools to investigate learning through 3D printing. This project highlighted the need for robust training and good technical support for the widespread incorporation of 3D printing into the curriculum to be successful.

The increasing numbers of 3D printers in schools is not only due to the increasing recognition of 3D printing being a relevant and engaging educational tool, but also relates to the number and availability of low cost 3D printing machines. It is now possible for schools to buy a 3D printer for around £500, whereas previous versions were cost prohibitive. The decreasing price tag is drastically improving the technology’s pick up in the education sector.

Using 3D printing as a production method enables students and pupils to move from the conception of an idea to producing a physical object with relative ease. The technology provides the ability to produce a part quickly, which is an advantage for students learning about design, particularly the limitations and constraints of the different technologies. Interrogating a physical object can make it easier for pupils to spot mistakes in designs. This allows them to gain valuable problem solving skills in a creative, hands-on way; without the ability to print prototypes, it would be considerably more difficult for students to identify weaknesses in their designs and improve upon them.

3D printing has a number of benefits to a wide range of school subject areas, from design and technology to physics and even model building for subjects such as biology and geography. A major hurdle to overcome in the education sector was mastering 3D printing machines. However, the emergence of simple software packages and the availability of online tutorials have greatly improved accessibility to the technology. With the reduction in cost of materials and printers, and schools’ focus on active learning and addressing the skills gap, it would be logical for 3D printers to become a widely used educational tool in years to come. Who knows, they might even prove as popular as the electronic calculator.

Read more The future of 3D printing in education

Do you have a 3D printer at your school? Has it encouraged the students to work differently and more creatively? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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