Simon Biggs, Education Liaison Officer for Wales at global engineering and scientific technology company Renishaw discusses the current use of 3D printers as an educational tool.
In the 1950s, the slide rule was the most commonly used classroom tool for mathematical and engineering calculation, but by the mid 1970s, the newer technology - the electronic scientific calculator - made the slide rule almost obsolete. Since then, there has been an explosion of new technologies hitting the classroom for engineering and mathematical learning including the computer, the iPad and more recently 3D printers.
3D printing is a well-established industrial technology for prototyping and manufacturing, particularly popular with the aerospace and defence sectors. Also known as additive manufacturing (AM), 3D printing is the process of making a solid 3D object from a digital computer aided design (CAD) file. The printer adds successive layers of material together until the final object has been created. This is different from traditional manufacturing methods like CNC machining, which removes material from a solid block using rotating tools or cutters.
3D printing is a rapid production method with minimal waste material. Its design flexibility means users can manufacture bespoke objects for a low cost. These advantages have made it increasingly popular as a production method in the manufacturing industry.
"Exciting and innovative projects are a simple way to keep pupils engaged in STEM subjects, which is a vital step forward in addressing the skills shortage"
Understanding and using this growing technology can benefit children’s learning, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects but also beyond these more traditional fields in music, design technology, history, geography and biology. In 2013, a pilot project introduced 3D printers into 21 schools to investigate learning through 3D printing. This project highlighted the need for robust training and good technical support for the widespread incorporation of 3D printing into the curriculum to be successful.
This project confirmed the potential for 3D printers as a teaching resource, providing that teachers can access adequate training for the technology. Many of the schools reported increased pupil motivation when engaged in 3D printing projects. Exciting and innovative projects are also a simple way to keep pupils engaged in STEM subjects, which is a vital step forward in addressing the STEM skills shortage. Since the pilot project in 2013, 3D printing has become more accessible and popular as a classroom technology.
The rise of 3D printers in schools
The increasing numbers of 3D printers in schools is not only due to the increasing recognition of 3D printing being a relevant and engaging educational tool, but also relates to the number and availability of low cost 3D printing machines. It is now possible for schools to buy a 3D printer for around £500, whereas previous versions were cost prohibitive. The decreasing price tag is drastically improving the technology's pick up in the education sector.
Advances in resources available for teachers and other education professionals are also making 3D printing more widely accessible. Teachers can now download design software and access it via tablets and mobile phones. Easy tutorials for beginners are available for those without basic knowledge of the technology.
3D printing software is considerably more user friendly than it was two years ago, which makes it ideal for younger children to grasp. Innovative apps for mobile phones and tablets make it easy and efficient to create designs and send them to a 3D printer for production. These apps build up students’ skills using design platforms. However, the primary reason the technology is able to positively influence the learning process in design is the ability to learn through trial and error.
Developing new skills
Using 3D printing as a production method enables students and pupils to move from the conception of an idea to producing a physical object with relative ease. The technology provides the ability to produce a part quickly, which is an advantage for students learning about design, particularly the limitations and constraints of the different technologies. Interrogating a physical object can make it easier for pupils to spot mistakes in designs. This allows them to gain valuable problem solving skills in a creative, hands-on way; without the ability to print prototypes, it would be considerably more difficult for students to identify weaknesses in their designs and improve upon them.
In recent years, the price of consumer 3D printers has dropped as the market has expanded. This makes the purchase of a machine easier to justify in the education sector, but for those schools that feel unable to justify the cost of owning a 3D printer despite recognising the benefits it can offer to learning, a purchase is not always necessary. Facilities such as the Fabrication Development Centre (FDC) at the Renishaw Miskin site, near Cardiff, contains five 3D printers that local schools use during their design and technology lessons.
Believed to be the only facility of its kind in the UK that is attached to a manufacturing site, Renishaw’s FDC enriches pupils' learning experience further by showing them how industrial metal additive manufacturing machines are made and used to produce medical devices and dentures within the co-located Healthcare Centre of Excellence. This gives students the opportunity to see Renishaw manufactured metal 3D printers in action — producing objects such as dental frameworks and facial implants. Students are able to relate their learning in the classroom with practical applications in industry, a link that may otherwise be difficult to grasp.
3D printing has a number of benefits to a wide range of school subject areas, from design and technology to physics and even model building for subjects such as biology and geography. A major hurdle to overcome in the education sector was mastering 3D printing machines. However, the emergence of simple software packages and the availability of online tutorials have greatly improved accessibility to the technology. With the reduction in cost of materials and printers, and schools’ focus on active learning and addressing the skills gap, it would be logical for 3D printers to become a widely used educational tool in years to come. Who knows, they might even prove as popular as the electronic calculator.