3-D printers are revolutionizing the classroom in a way never thought possible. They foster hands-on creativity, build enthusiasm, and offer students a new interactive approach to any given subject matter. And, although educational 3-D printing has already generated a significant amount of buzz in the field, principals, district administrators, and teachers are just beginning to explore this new technology’s countless uses.

The 3-D printer’s sphere of influence is already growing beyond its initial capabilities. When it first began gaining traction in the K–12 space, educators solely focused on mathematics and engineering applications. With simple-to-use software, teachers taught students to design tools such as wrenches or prosthetic limbs, print them out, and gauge if they needed to be adjusted. The 3-D printers’ interactive nature lends itself to a new and intimate understanding of what it means to design, create, and use an object, which is extremely relevant to the sciences. But its applications within the learning space are rapidly expanding. 

Not Just STEM 

Over the last year, a new movement has begun in the global educational industry that introduces significant new uses for 3-D printers in K–12 environments. To expand the focus simply on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), educators have officially altered the term to “STEAM” to incorporate the arts into their core focus. 

Especially with regard to 3-D printing, educators were so fixated on utilizing the tool in the science subjects that they initially left art classes out of the equation. By beginning to integrate 3-D printing into art and design classes, teachers now have an entirely new tool to work with to cultivate each student’s creativity. Art teachers can conduct lessons that allow students to draw with a pencil or crayon on a piece of paper, import the hand-drawn image into easy-to-use software, load it into the 3-D printer’s program, and quite literally bring their art to life in three dimensions. 

In addition to the expanding art and design subject matter applications in individual classrooms, K–12 libraries are emerging as adopters of 3-D printing technology for makerspaces, a new trend that incorporates creative “DIY” spaces where students can gather to create, invent, and learn on their own time. These new spaces, which are comparable to the computer labs of the past, utilize 3-D printers so students can turn their ideas into a real product. Makerspaces provide students with access to tools that allow them to create on their own terms. 

Used with Interactive Technologies

Within these makerspaces, 3-D printers are used in conjunction with other cutting-edge educational technologies, such as interactive SMART boards. For example, students can design a tool directly in a program on a library SMART board, import it into the 3-D printer’s software, and print it. Concept creation is increasingly integrating cutting-edge K–12 technology to aid in the end-​product’s design, and it’s a trend that will continue to grow as a greater number of 3-D printers are brought into schools. 

While many early adopters are already well underway with this new technology, there have been challenges. Administrators, principals, and teachers often invest in 3-D printing without ensuring its proper integration into the curriculum (which could result in the equipment’s neglect or lack of use). It is extremely important for any interested K–12 decision maker to include a curriculum package with their 3-D printer investment. For example, through Advanced Education’s preconfigured curriculum package, schools can seamlessly integrate the Dremel 3D Idea Builder Printer into their daily lessons. 

While initial interest in educational 3-D printers has been geared primarily toward the K–8 market, the future will include even more applicable subject matter and application development on a higher level. We have begun and will continue to see 3-D printing being utilized in more complex lesson plans for high school students. For example, innovative mathematics educators are beginning to incorporate 3-D printing to demonstrate elaborate graphing and complex equations by showing the end result of a graph in a three-dimensional format. Science educators are printing geological structures out in three dimensions to help high school students prepare for their AP examinations. The future will give way to even more developments for 3-D printers. Now, it’s just a matter of preparing for what’s to come. 

Mark McPherson is the vice president of Advanced Education, a Canadian supplier of educational technology solutions. Advanced Education recently partnered with Dremel to bring 3-D printer curriculum bundles to K–12 schools.