3D Printing Education: Learn to Incorporate 3D Printing in the Class

3D Printing Education: Learn to Incorporate 3D Printing in the Class

With 3D printing emerging in schools, there are many teachers left wondering how to integrate 3D printing in their classroom material. We will hear from Jerry Shaw, a lead engineering teacher and curriculum developer at a technical high school on how to approach 3D printing in the classroom.

Teachers are constantly adapting and working with new technologies and tools in the classroom. Recently, this includes devices such as SmartBoards, cloud based lessons, and smartphones. It is up to educators to develop the most effective methods of incorporating these tools into lessons.

3D printing is just one of the new technologies being rapidly deployed into schools. The intent for these tools is to help encourage project-based curriculum and the introduce shared Maker Spaces and FabLabs. As part of this, educators are working towards figuring out how to effectively use 3D printers to enhance and adapt lessons. 

3D Printing Education Formlabs Form 2 in the Classroom

Focus on the Purpose of the Lesson 

The most important aspect of any lesson plan is to focus on the purpose. This is extremely pertinent with new technology like 3D printing.  If too much focus is given to the technology rather than the lesson itself, the educational goals will land flat. This is analogous to spending too much time learning how to use a computer program that teaches languages, when the goal is to learn the new language itself.  A 3D printer is a tool, much the same as the calculator, computer, or even the mighty marker.  Learning how to use these tools is a useful activity and will help students in future endeavors. However, if learning the technology is not the goal of the lesson,  the technology should be minimized to enhance the learning objective and not distract from it.

As a teacher, this also means that one has to be comfortable with the how the 3D printer functions, or at least comfortable enough to know it’s limitations and capabilities. This could be as simple as knowing how fast the 3D printer can produce parts or how strong the plastic will be.  By understanding the printer and its material properties, teachers are able to find the best way to use the tool and incorporate it into the lesson.

3D Printing Education lesson plan

Principles of 3D Modeling Lesson Plan

Incorporation into a Humanities Curriculum 

The applications of 3D printing in engineering and STEM classes are very clear. I firmly believe that there is potential in using these devices beyond STEM and in the humanities and social science subjects. Although applications are less clear and more open to interpretation, the success lies in exposing educators to the technology and actively embracing it.  Additionally, the support for humanities educators should include tangible examples of what 3D printers can do to enhance existing lesson plans.

From my experience working with humanities educators, the most popular application is with student projects. Although poster projects are still used, students are starting to incorporate technology such as PowerPoint presentations, webpages, and even 3D printing technology. As the director of a FabLab, I would often take other teacher’s classes into the space and show them the possibilities of what our machines can do. This process is similar to how a librarian shows students how to research. I see students use 3D printers to create customized figurines for dioramas, props for theatrical renditions of Shakespeare, and even as a means to add a three-dimensional aspect to their posters.

Teachers can also produce objects to aid in lessons too.  History teachers may look to websites such as Pinshape to find models of artifacts, ancient buildings, or topographical maps to create tangible objects that students can interact with.  English teachers can reproduce objects from books and create games to help students learn complex topics – say good bye to flashcards! Additionally,  you can use 3D printing to assist English Language Learners, as Heather Wolpert-Gawron has.

3D printers bring physical objects to the classroom to enhance existing digital tools. Instead of just reading about people or places in an online textbook, students can touch and feel objects related to the lesson. This engages them on a different level and enables them to commit the lesson to memory. The integration of 3D printing into humanities classrooms has the capability to further engage students and help them retain information better than standard lectures.

Incorporation into Engineering and CTE

Most engineering and Career Technical Education (CTE) classes are already well suited to incorporate 3D printers into the curriculum.  In these lessons, design and manufacturing tend to be central themes well suited to interfacing with 3D printing. In engineering & CTE classes, the  goal may be to understand how 3D printers work, learn basic repair techniques, and learn to design objects using 3D CAD software. Ironically, this is an area I have found where teachers have the most difficulty. Often, students rely on existing objects from files on the internet. While it is easy to get students excited about 3D printing objects, if they don’t learn to create objects themselves they will miss out on the design & manufacturing skills. In my lessons, I strive to avoid this by requiring students to use 3D CAD software for design of the end products. They are also required to submit engineering drawings to reinforce the engineering skills that are part of the learning outcome.

Incorporation into Math and Science

The goals in math and science classes are often to understand models rather than design them.  3D printing allows educators to take many of these abstract models and physically recreate them as something more understandable for students. No longer are DNA strands distant ideas shown in a book but instead, teachers can 3D print each building block allowing students to recreate their own DNA models.

Math teachers can create physical objects that represent fractions for students to play with and visualize. With these modeling techniques, the goal should be to take concepts from textbooks and create objects for students to physically manipulate and explore. This constructivist method helps teach all students by providing various means of lesson delivery. Resources such as Pinshape provide plenty of previously made models that teachers can search for and 3D print for their classrooms. 


Final Thoughts 

A good place to start is by creating a lesson plan. For example, The Principles of 3D Modeling, is a lesson  I created that focuses on 3D modeling. It won second place in the Formlabs lesson plan contest for educational 3D printing. If you’re interested in seeing more 3D printing related lesson plans, check out this collection of 3D Printing lesson plans on Pinshape. 

As 3D printers become more accessible in classrooms, there is no doubt there are many ways they will be incorporated.  In my own experiences with my own students and fellow teachers, the best advice to incorporating 3D printing is this: if you never lose sight of the goal of the lesson, you can only do good.

Jeremy “Jerry” Shaw is the lead Engineering Teacher & curriculum developer at South Shore Vocational Technical High School in Hanover, MA. He and also provides curriculum development & teacher training services at i2 Programs for Middle School Students. Previously, he acted as Director of Somerville High School’s (Somerville, MA) FabLab and was a design engineer in the Nuclear Power & Datacenter Industries.


Pinshape is a 3D printing community and marketplace where makers from all over the world can find and share their next great 3D print and help each other get the best results from their 3D printers.