There is so much excitement and buzz about 3D printing in classrooms. Students now have a great excuse to get their hands dirty and teachers are eager to explore all the ways in which they can spice up their classes with 3D model making. One of the great advantages of 3D printers in schools is that unlike woodwork or metalworking, there is no real need to create a dedicated lab space. The printers are compact and can easily fit into normal sized classrooms. Having said that, each school is different and there can be a myriad approaches to incorporating this new technology into the curriculum.
The amount of time that it takes to complete print jobs means that students will usually have to work together in groups and while collaboration is always great, a single 3D printer may fail to cope with the demands of several large classes at once. It can be difficult to get scheduling right and the needs of high schoolers are bound to be different from those of middle schoolers.
There is no one-size-fits all solution to 3D printing in education. If your school is keen to invest in these machines, here are some important factors to bear in mind so that you can make the best choice to suit the needs of your students:
- Budget: This might seem like stating the obvious, but it helps to know budget constraints right off the bat so that you can narrow down the pool of possibilities. Your budget should factor in not only the actual printer itself but also other tools, supplies, facilities you are likely to require and the running expenses. Besides the one-time investment in the machine, it should also factor in recurring costs for supplies.
- Space: Does the school intend to devote a dedicated space for 3D printing and digital fabrication? If so, you may consider investing in multiple machines of different sizes and qualities. You may also need a few dedicated computers with appropriate software platforms installed on them. This would make sense if there are likely to be multiple levels of engagement with the technology. Middle schoolers may be more interested in downloading models and assembling parts. Older students may wish to explore the art and science of generating their own models and playing with a variety of materials besides the standard filaments. You will also need space to store supplies, accessories, tools and the models themselves.
- Instruction: When it comes to building models from scratch, there is a rather steep learning curve. Teachers themselves may need to undergo training before they begin to incorporate 3D printing in class. This shouldn’t be too hard if you are only looking to download readymade models to print. Otherwise, and if you expect intense usage, you might want to consider hiring a part-time or full-time instructor or even a technician.
- The Machines: There are numerous 3D printers available on the market. Some are designed expressly for industrial use and some for professionals. Others are great for amateur experimentation while being robust enough to survive handling by a horde of schoolchildren. Which type would suit your students? In order to narrow down on your final choice, consider specifications such as sizes, capacities (build volume) and build quality. For more elaborate and detailed model-making, you should opt for higher resolution with the capacity to utilise a variety of materials. For better finish, choose a resin printer. For more modest needs, choose a budget friendly option and pick an entry-level plug-and-play model.
- Firmware: The printer’s firmware is a program that your printer operates on. It controls parameters such as the actual temperature, movement of mechanical parts, etc. Your machine will usually come pre-installed with firmware, but other options also exist. Depending on your needs you could choose to use the preloaded one or a freely available open-source one. Repetier is a popular choice for new learners since it incorporates web-based tools that make configuration easy.
- Software: You may not actually need 3D modelling software since premade patterns are available by the thousands to download off the internet. Thingiverse is a popular destination for premade designs that are ready to go. On the other hand, teaching students to use 3D modelling software to actually generate their own designs takes an extra level of commitment of time and effort but it really deepens their learning. TinkerCAD is a great option for beginners as it is based online. Consider options like AutoCAD and Maya if your students are interested in learning 3D modelling for its own sake. These skills can be extremely useful for furniture, product design or even animation.
- Safety: All new users should be instructed in proper handling of the machine, especially when printing is in progress. The nozzle can get quite hot when the machine is at work. Hence, there is a risk of burns if one is not careful. Studies are now beginning to reveal that ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds released by the printers can pose health risks. Some of these substances have been linked to cancer. In fact, low-cost printers reportedly tend to emit larger volumes of these substances. For safety reasons, keep children away from the machines when they are active, and ensure that the space is well-ventilated.
- Maintenance: Learning to use the machine is fun, of course. But children should also be encouraged to take responsibility for cleaning up afterwards and ensuring that the machine is ready for its next exciting run. This will involve putting away materials and tools after use, lubricating the machine and cleaning its nozzle to remove debris. The extruder should also be cleaned regularly and any adhesive that may have been used on the plate should be wiped away as well. The machine may need recalibrating once every few uses to ensure consistent performance. Of course, this also depends on the intensity of usage.
- Customer Support And User Community: An important consideration is prompt customer care and an active user community that shares experiences and offers helpful ideas and advice for troubleshooting. Choose companies and brands that are rated highly in terms of customer care and servicing.
Not every school necessarily has the resources to set up 3D printing, as much as they might like for students to engage with the technology. There may be constraints in budget, space or time. Schools in developing countries may not have access to internet connectivity or electricity on a reliable basis. But this shouldn’t stop you from letting your students sink their teeth into this wonderful technology. Even if your school cannot have its own 3D printing lab or machine, alternatives do exist. Here are a few ideas we’d like you to consider:
- Makerspaces and FabLabs: Schools can initiate collaborations with Makerspaces on a regular basis. In some countries, larger universities or community libraries have already set up Makerspaces and others may happen on a pop-up basis for short periods of time. Schools can also tie up with local FabLabs (fabrication laboratories) for short workshops to introduce children to the joys of inventing and prototyping. These are present in about 30 countries worldwide; there might just be one close to you. The great advantage with Makerspaces and FabLabs is that they are usually equipped with other specialist tools like laser cutters, vinyl cutters and lathes that students can also experiment with for a more-well rounded experience.
- 3D hubs: For one-off projects requiring 3D printing, schools can outsource the actual printing to a 3D printing service.
- Guest workshops: Invite artists and makers to bring their own machines to conduct workshops at your school. It may be possible to set aside a space for a week or a fortnight and to let the children loose to explore this new medium for its own sake and not necessarily as part of the curriculum.
- DIY 3D printers: If you want to take this one step further and if your students have some experience putting together mechanical parts, try actually constructing your own 3D printer from scratch. This can turn into a hugely exciting project. Open-source designs for building 3D printers from 3D printed parts are available on the internet. A well-loved example is the Lulzbot range of printers. DIY kits are available for purchase too. This guide offers a roundup of some great DIY kits.
Hopefully, this article has helped you gain some clarity on the options available to you. Whatever the classroom size or budget that you are working with, we hope you feel assured that there are solutions out there for you.