3D printing has been around for a few decades, but recent years have seen the drop in the cost of both hardware and materials, making the technology accessible to the public. It has become wildly popular and the masses are cranking out cheap tchotchkes by the thousands. But the masses in the maker movement are a creative bunch and continue to find ever-expanding applications for the technology. It has provided breakthroughs in construction, manufacturing, and even artificial organs. Because 3D printing can be used for so many things, it has a solid future in education too.
Though they are not yet as ubiquitous, 3d printers can be compared to blue books in that they are simple in concept but can be used in creative ways. Art students have a limitless medium and can feel replicated sculptures. Students studying architecture can replicate famous structures or stretch their imaginations and design buildings that combine discrete styles. Urban planning classes can make cheap and accurate models. I came across a DNA scale model used to show “key structural features including base pairing, the classic double helix, along with the major and minor grooves.” When students are able to tactilely and visually inspect concrete representations of objects, they are better able to make personal connections and internalize their learning. Perhaps the coolest use of 3D printing that I wish was around when I was an undergrad is the ability to use modeling software to create visualizations of equations like the one pictured here.
In a certain sense, 3D printing is also comparable to dining. Should you wish to enjoy a good meal, no special skills are needed to order take out. One of the largest advantages of 3D printing as a medium is it requires no special skills to use. Turnkey designs can be downloaded onto a memory card and printed directly from the 3D printer or they can be opened on the computer and modified or printed with amended instructions. The pictures on this page are part of the myriad ready-to-go designs available on sites like Thingiverse. To further the dining analogy, should you wish to experiment with semi-homemade printing, the online design libraries feature customization tools. Should you wish to design from scratch, there are exceedingly user-friendly web-based design applications like Tinkercad. No matter what your subject, there is a way you can incorporate 3D printing into the way your students demonstrate their mastery of it. Like the blue book, 3D printing is a versatile medium to create artifacts of learning that is simple enough to use that it enhances rather hinders creativity.