The Evolution of 3D Modeling and Printing in Schools

The Evolution of 3D Modeling and Printing in Schools
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Student Comparing 3D Models

When I began teaching 3D modeling to high school students back in 1998, our focus was simple CAD designs, architectural models, video game models, or creating interesting computer wallpapers. We had heard about businesses creating patterns that could be cut or machined on a CNC mill, but for most high schools at that time, this was not in the realm of possibilities. As 3D modeling software improved and became more affordable and CNC machining became less expensive and more accessible, some high schools began expanding their “machining” tools. However, the part to be machined was generally programmed in by the shop teacher and very few parts were actually machined.

As the possibility of creating an object on our computer and then sending it to a machine to be cut out began a reality, it also began to change the focus of instruction; instead of having students create a beautiful building on a beach (for example), I was having them create real-world objects (tape dispenser, a CD player, a pull-toy, etc.) modeled to specific dimensions or with specific traits. This approach led to assignments where students were creating “improvements on real-world products”, redesigned packaging, ergonomic tools, or cool appliances. Students created amazing pieces and dreamed of the day [way off in the future] where, “It would be cool if you could make something here and just print it out – like on Star Trek.”

Fast forward many years and 3D printing technology had become a reality – although not so much for schools. The high cost of 3D printers and the recurring cost of filament were huge dissuaders of implementation, but also the lack of understanding of most school administrators of the importance of modeling and additive manufacturing made justification for a purchase nearly impossible. When any additive manufacturing or CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs are implemented, the focus has generally been to put it in the “shop environment.” Only recently has the focus shifted to the classroom with possibilities of product design, rapid prototyping, invention, or design careers.Students Printing

Although I had followed the growth of 3D printing technology for many years, the schools where I worked just couldn’t see the benefit of a 3D printer – and quite frankly, thought it was a ridiculous toy that would be a distraction. Many schools [mine included] had their first real chance to explore 3D printing technology through a generous grant by Makerbot. Love them, hate them, laugh at them, or don’t care at all, Makerbot’s decision to give grants to many small schools for a free Makerbot Replicator 2 and two large spools of filament broke through that barrier. Schools were suddenly turning out projects that students had created virtually and “almost magically” brought into reality. Administrators began to understand the power of this technology.

When I received the grant from Makerbot and set up the Replicator2, I began playing with what file types I could print, which programs seemed to work best, and what limitations the technology had. Then when we began demonstrating what students could do themselves, other teachers began submitting requests. We had a teacher wanting a model of the human heart that could be passed around the classroom. We had an art teacher asking for some models that could be drawn. We had a French teacher wanting an Eiffel tower. We even did a small fundraiser by selling custom iPhone cases to pay for more filament. Soon we began hearing from other schools who wanted to be a part of this “revolution”.

It’s important to understand that there is a learning curve to implementing this technology, but how steep depends on where the school is in terms of technology and course availability. If the school has no courses involving 3D graphic design or modeling, the printer will be a toy until a modeling curriculum can be implemented. Students will need to learn to create and refine models on their own, or they will just be printing pre-made models. It’s equivalent to printing a graphic found on the Internet instead of learning to create a graphic in Photoshop or Illustrator. Some 3D modeling programs are cost-prohibitive in a school environment; some charge for every seat, some charge for the number of students in the school, and some charge a site license. Thankfully there is a wide array of free modeling software platforms available, and they are getting better as the technology progresses.

Student with 3D Printed CastleOnce a school has a design course which includes 3D modeling technology, the difficulty lies in creating useful and interesting assignments that teach solid design principles which progressively build upon earlier skills. Instructors should also focus on principles such as “how printable is this?” For example, are there elements of the design where the filament will fall (i.e. at the top of a door or window)? Can you fix that by making the windows or doors come up into a tight arch, or is it better to just count on supports when printing? Finally, at least as far as design is concerned, teachers should teach a variety of technologies or skills; perhaps making a gear set in Rhino, a castle in Google Sketchup, a bust in Sculptris, etc.

It is also critical to choose how [or what] to allow in terms of printing for each student, and to inform students right up front about limitations. Students may come into the course with grandiose plans of printing an entire chess set, or a suit of armor, or a sword, or some sort of cosplay outfit. They need to understand that the cost [and printing time] make that impossible. They also need to be aware that some items [drug or weapon related, for example] are generally prohibited at school. I tend to limit students to a small piece or two, depending on class size and model complexity, but we create many printable models that they are free to have printed by a service or to print on their own printers when they can afford one. I do allow students to design a large item (a helmet, for example) but I will print it at a very reduced size.Student Printed 3D Objects

I don’t believe we have even scratched the surface of how education will change with additive manufacturing. As the technology becomes easier to manage, more affordable, more widespread, and more understood, I foresee more implementation in computer labs around the world. Indeed, as it becomes more simplified, I envision individual teachers having a 3D printer on their desk to create pieces relating to their curriculum. I myself am a History teacher and have had many instances where I wish I had a model of a fort or settlement or arrowhead or building that students could play with. I think science classes could print DNA or nanobot designs or space station modules that connect together. Physics classes could print derby cars or propellers or wheels. However, I think the big thing in the future will be teaching the skills themselves. Guiding students through classes where they can design a car, a tool, their own phone case, a pair of shoes, or a house and get a job in that industry could very well be the next step in the evolution of CTE courses.


Robert Griffith

I've been a public school teacher and a college instructor since 1998 including U.S. History, World History, Economics, Operating Systems, Programming, Video Production, Multimedia, Photography, Web Design, 3D Graphics, Digital Arts, and Office Applications. I am also a 3D printing enthusiast and a freelance computer specialist. Although I am from Northern California, I am now living in beautiful East Tennessee with my family.