Trudi Lawless is an engineering teacher at a junior high school in Orange Park, Florida. Not long ago, she decided she wanted to use a 3D printer in her classes, so she purchased a 3D printing curriculum through Pitsco Education, which came with a desktop Afinia 3D printer.
Before implementing the curriculum, she wanted to experiment. There was a LEGO robotics competition in her district, and she wanted to print out 50 medals so every student could have something to take home.
Lawless designed them on Autodesk Inventor, but she accidentally scaled them completely wrong. When the first one was printed, it was two centimeters instead of two inches. She could only laugh. After playing around with it, she figured it out.
The class thought it was incredibly cool. They watched her print them one by one, and even fought over the little plastic remnants left over after the medals were finished printing. They wanted to keep the extra material to show off to their friends and family.
"At first, they don't really understand the whole concept, but it's getting better because they're seeing it all over the place," Lawless said. "It's the limitless possibilities [that] they can imagine."
One student designed his own iPhone case and now wants to print it at school. "If you need something, don't just go buy it, you can make it. That 'sky's the limit' type mentality [is what] they're beginning to grasp."
Lawless was a math teacher for six years when she "got a wild hair" and decided to teach engineering instead. She had no idea what the curriculum would entail, but it sounded fascinating, so she attended a boot camp held by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that develops STEM curricula. Pitsco is a suggested supplier of the organization.
Like most people around the world, she had been hearing a lot of buzz about 3D printing and wanted to incorporate it into her classwork. The projects Pitsco offers are designed for middle and high school students, though some are used as early as fifth grade.
Alan Kirby is the inside sales manager at Pitsco, which has been making STEM learning solutions since 1971. He is a 3D printing enthusiast and has been helping develop and market the curriculum for the past year and a half.
The curriculum was developed to meet Next Generation Science Standards, a new common core set of standards that reflects major advancements in science that 26 states have implemented so far.
One project Pitsco offers is the vehicle engineering kit, which requires no prior knowledge of CAD software or engineering design for teachers or students. A CD filled with more than 100 pre-designed parts comes with the curriculum. The students break into race car teams and have to budget their money to build a car — which adds a math piece into the engineering project. They purchase all the parts, from axles to wheels to battery holders, but if they run low on funds, they can print their own — which is much cheaper. The project culminates in a flat speed race and hill climb race.
Another project introduces students to CAD software with a free program called 123D Create, made by AutoDesk. It's cloud-based and allows them to create designs in CAD using an iPad or computer. Students create a small medallion, which is a simple design, to get them engaged with the printers and software. They then redesign it into a wearable piece that means something to them — adding a little bit of art into the project. The final aspect of the curriculum is to make a game piece and design a game around it, which students present to the class at the end.
Both of these are three-week courses, so they can easily be incorporated into any STEM curriculum. They can be purchased as a package with or without a 3D printer — Afinia is the company they've partnered with — but the curriculum is printer and software agnostic. The vehicle engineering kit comes with one printer, and the design solutions kit comes with four.
"With a class of 20 to 24 students, the only problem with 3D printing is it is inherently slow, and if it takes 45 minutes to print something, you have one happy team and four sad teams," Kirby said. "We look forward to faster print jobs."
Of course, the biggest barrier to purchasing a 3D printer is the price tag. Though prices have dropped in the last few years, schools still rely on grants to get the money to buy one. Luckily, Kirby said, more grants for STEM education that incorporate this technology are popping up all over the place.
It doesn't end with math and science, however. 3D printing has a place in other subject areas. For instance, the Smithsonian is digitizing parts of its artifact collection so that anyone can print models, which is great for social studies classes.
"That physical touch makes the connection for a lot of kids," Kirby said.
Another example is English and Language Arts, where Pitsco is exploring ways to use 3D printing at the elementary school level. One idea is to print characters that students can write stories about.
"It's STEM through and through, so if a school is wanting to implement a 3D printing program, that's a technology that covers all aspects," he said.
Bringing the technology into extracurricular activities is a concept Pitsco is experimenting with as well. The company has been working with Science Olympiad and robotics teams for competitions (which they often sponsor) to use 3D printers to manufacture parts for cars, robots, and more. Students usually use a set or pre-made parts, but sometimes those parts don't fit right, or they realize it will work better another way and want to change things last-minute. With 3D printers, they can design and engineer their own parts to make their projects better than ever.
Lawless has not yet tried the vehicle engineering curriculum, but she owns the kit and has looked over the materials. She said Pitsco makes it very easy to implement and integrate into her classwork. And the power of 3D printing still amazes her all the time.
"It's very cathartic. A kid who can't sit still, has the wibbly wobblies, you sit them in front of the 3D printer and they're sitting there for 10 to 15 minutes watching it," she said. "It lulls them into some kind of calm zone."
She is convinced that 3D printing is here to stay, and it will only be a matter of time before more classes utilize the technology. It's new, cutting edge, and kids are reading about it online and seeing it on television. They know people are using 3D printers to do important things like make prosthetics.
"Generally, technology in the classroom is five or six years behind what's in the real world, which is eons as far as technology is concerned," Lawless said. "So something like that, it's a big hook. It put me up a couple of notches in their eyes."
As with any new technology, kids learn quicker than adults, and now adults are trying to catch up. Most teachers who have bought 3D printers, Kirby said, just let them sit in the back of the room, gathering dust. They have no idea how to use them, or how much potential they offer for education.
Lawless is the only teacher in her school with a printer. One day, the assistant principal came in to put a special label on it as part of school standards. She was teaching at the time, so she just pointed to the back of the classroom where it was. Later, she looked for the label, and realized her colleague had put it on her 2D printer.
The kids had a good, long laugh about that.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.