Using 3D Printing to Inspire STEAM

Posted by Jacqui Adams on

Taken from Machine Design

John Hornick

Kids Are the Key

Kids are just starting to use simple, inexpensive, consumer-grade 3D printers today. They are the early adopters, and machines that are good enough today will become better, faster, and capable of making more things. Kids will not only grow up with the technology, the technology will grow up with the kids because they will contribute to its advancement. Today’s young innovators will 3D print our future. To some extent, they will learn by using their own machines, teaching themselves, and improving the machines as they go. But they will also need access to advanced machines, processes, and materials. Schools and governments are beginning to pave the roads that kids will follow, from printing toys at home today to making high-tech parts and products in the factories of tomorrow.

Turn on the STEAM

There is a lot of talk about the importance of STEM education. Recently, the issue became hotter when STEM became STEAM: Science & Technology interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Math. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States will have about 9.2 million STEM jobs in 2020. But according to the National Science Foundation, there will not be enough qualified graduates to fill those jobs. Geopolitical expert George Freedman believes the United States will have a severe labor shortage beginning no later than 2020, which will accelerate in that decade.

But there is hope. According to a joint international report spearheaded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Education Society, 3D printing will significantly enhance STEM+ education within a few years.

Inspiring Kids to Learn

Adults often ask, “If I had a 3D printer, what would I do with it?” I answer this question  with what I learned from Mark Trageser, an independent toy designer who uses 3D printers to prototype and make toys. He says, “Don’t ask me what to do with a 3D printer,tell me what to do with it.” Many adults need a little help to see how 3D printers can fit into their lives. But kids don’t ask this question. They seem to be born with the innate ability to use technologies available to them. Hand a kid a 3D printer, and he or she will figure out what to make with it. Some of the things they make may not impress you, but I guarantee you that kids will push the envelope, not only of the things they make but also what the machine can do. Kids will do things with 3D printers that we may not think are possible. Why? Because they are not burdened with adult prejudices. Kids don’t know what can’t be done.

STEAMing Up the Classroom

A joint report by the New Media Consortium, the Consortium for School Networking, and the International Society for Technology in Education (“New Media Report”) predicts that full adoption of 3D printing in K–12 education will happen by about 2019.

The beauty of 3D printers in the classroom is that they not only prepare kids to work in the factories of the future and inspire them to be makers but also help bring abstract concepts to life. If a picture says a thousand words, a model you can handle and examine from all angles—and that you made yourself—says a million.

S and T Are for Science and Technology

The New Media Report observes that 3D printers in schools enable, ”More authentic exploration of objects that may not be readily available to schools. In science and history classes, for example, students can make and interact with models of fragile objects such as fossils and artifacts. Through rapid prototyping and production tools, chemistry students can print out models of complex proteins and other molecules."

Students can print models of mechanical devices to see how they work, dinosaur bones to see how they make up a dinosaur, and anatomical models to learn how organs work.

Kids can use home and classroom 3D printers to print cool stuff, have fun, and learn at the same time. For example, the National Institutes of Health created the 3D Print Exchange, which is a free online community-contributed library of 3D printable blueprints. Students who visit the website can download and print tangible models of things like proteins, pathogens, and DNA strands.

There is nothing like studying a physical 3D model. Imagine studying genetics by holding DNA strands that you printed yourself. According to a video on the NIH website, researchers who studied computer models of DNA strands for decades have made important advances faster by studying real, physical 3D models of the strands. Students can also upload their own 3D printable blueprints, so other students can learn from their models.

E Is for Engineering

With a 3D printer, anyone—or even a whole class—can become a mechanical engineer. Eighth graders at Swanson Middle School designed and 3D printed a device to help a disabled student operate the touchscreen interface on his wheelchair.

The 1,650 elementary school students at the Walt Disney Magnet School in Chicago use the 3D printers in their Makers Lab to make objects with Braille labels help teach blind students at a neighboring school.

Engineering with 3D printers is helping more than just the classroom. In 2012, puppeteer Ivan Owen and carpenter Richard Van As started the Robohand project. With the help of a 3D printer donated by MakerBot, they designed a 3D printable prosthetic hand and posted the blueprints on Thingiverse, free for anyone to use and improve. Richard lost his fingers in a woodshop accident. Ivan says, “It’s truly uplifting to see the level of involvement and the number of people out in the world who have taken this idea as their own and are using it to help others.” A new Robohand design is now available, which snaps together like Lego bricks.

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