Using 3D Printers to Teach Science

3D printers are becoming popular in a number of industries, as well as with hobbyists. If you've got a computer and the right software, you can build just about anything...
09 October 2018

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3D printers are becoming popular in many industries, as well as with hobbyists. If you've got a computer and the right software, you can build just about anything. These printers are also becoming more popular as educational tools: but how are teachers using 3D printers to teach math and science?

Bringing Back the Wow Factor

The kinds of experiments that appear in science classes in school are decades-old, and let's be honest — kids are tired of the baking soda volcano and the copper wire electromagnet. 3D printers have been around for a while now, but they're still new enough that it helps to bring back the wow factor when it comes to science class. Increasing student enthusiasm encourages better grades, better attendance and creates students who are excited to learn again.

Visual Maths Assistance

Math isn't easy for everyone — some students can learn it from a textbook, while others see a mess of numbers. These latter students can't visualise the maths equations or the things they might represent, which is where 3D printing comes in. It creates something tangible, something that the students can see, touch and play with, giving them the tools that they need to "see" the math problem that they need to solve.

Creating a new design in a CAD program requires practical math skills as well, taking maths from something abstract in a textbook to a useful skill that the students can use in their daily life. Many students have trouble with advanced maths like Algebra because they can't see anywhere that they might use it in their daily life — again, 3D printing and design gives them something tangible they can see and touch when the finished product is printed.

Not everyone loves maths, but by adding 3D printers to the classroom, teachers can turn maths into something students enjoy again.

3D Printing and Anatomy Education

Learning anatomy — especially human anatomy for students going into medicine — has been a contentious topic for a long time. One of the best ways to learn human anatomy is to study and dissect a human cadaver, but that raises additional concerns, even when the cadaver was donated. Cadaver dissections also expose students to embalming fluid, which can be hazardous.

3D printing can be used to create high-quality reproductions of previously dissected human cadavers scientists can study. MRI and CT images can even be used to create models without needing to be taken from a deceased person, creating the opportunity for students to explore a greater variety of individuals, diseases and medical conditions.

Using a CT scan — when paired with the correct printer software — creates a file that any appropriately sized 3D printer can print, making it accessible for students and teachers across the globe.

On the higher learning side of things, scientists are using specially designed 3D printers to print cells and tissues — and while a classroom printer might not be intended for that kind of printing, it is still an awesome tidbit to include in the lesson plan.

Engineering, Architecture and Astrophysics

CAD skills aren’t the only thing a student can hope to learn from having access to a 3D printer. The imaging software has advanced to the point that nearly any data source — from topographical maps and elevation models to radar data — can be translated into a 3D image and printed.

This isn’t limited to topographic data from our home planet, either — we can use 3D printers to replicate interstellar terrain, as well, such as the data that astronomers have collected from the Mars rovers and our repeated trips to the Moon. For a branch of education that relies heavily on pictures and other data collected remotely, 3D printing can become an invaluable tool.

If your 3D printer leaves a project with rough edges, this can also be a great way to introduce the concept of project finishing — sandblasting or barrel tumbling to finish the edges and give the whole project a nice polished look. This might not be ideal for printing projects designed to have rough edges, but it can be a valuable tool nonetheless.

Archaeology and History

Archaeology is one educational field that doesn’t always have access to the items the class is studying.  Whether they’re studying dinosaur bones, primitive pottery or mummified remains, these items are usually safely stored in museums and aren’t available for a student to see, touch or study in person.

3D printing allows for the on-demand printing of nearly anything you can scan. While it isn’t a useful tool for things like learning how to carbon date, it can allow students to analyse a replica of a cuneiform tablet or a pile of coins without the risk of having the original item in the hands of inexperienced students.

We could easily adapt the same technology for use in history or social studies classes, as well, while fostering design-based thinking and the creation of “makerspaces,” where students can learn by creating a new thing. A lesson about medieval wars could be punctuated with the creation of medieval weaponry, such as catapults or trebuchets on a 3D printer to reinforce the lessons.

Creating a New Classroom With 3D Printing

3D printers might seem like an expensive toy to add to the classroom, but they're getting more affordable by the year — depending on the needs of the school, a teacher can pick up a simple 3D printer for less than \$200. What can't be measured is the worth of this device — turning science and mathematics into something that students enjoy again is worth every penny spent on the printer and the plastic needed to create the student's designs. If you're a math or science teacher, consider adding a 3D printer to your classroom. You might be surprised by the fantastic things your students can create using math and science, as long as they have somewhere to do it!