Under Armour sneakers. Electrical filaments. Jet parts. Fidget spinners. Shoes for kids with cerebral palsy. Medical devices. Motorized bathroom signs. Dental products. Car tires. Nanotubes. What do they all have in common?

They can all be produced by 3-D printing.

So, it should not be much of a surprise that many elementary and secondary school principals are advocates for adding 3-D printing courses to their curriculum.

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3-D printed object is achieved using additive processes, in which an object is created by laying down successive layers of material that, in turn, are seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

When it first began gaining traction in the K–12 space, educators focused mostly on mathematics and engineering applications. Now, the 3-D printer’s sphere of influence has spread exponentially. 3-D printing got an enormous boost several years ago when President Barack Obama proclaimed in his State of the Union address that 3-D printing was an important element in the redesign of our nation’s schools. Educators say kids have taken to 3-D printing in much the same way they did to cellphone technology.

Let’s “3-D” That Piece

School officials and Rotary Club members encouraged students at Analy High School in Sebastopol, CA, to make proposals for projects for the school’s new makerspace-the 21st-century term for a hybrid of shop classroom and computer lab. The students spent time building out the makerspace, quickly incorporating new tools and technology into their ideas, says teacher Casey Shea. When they were doing their proposals, they were incredibly nonchalant, with several of the kids matter-of-factly announcing, “Let’s 3-D print that piece.” Students are not intimidated by the process, Shea says. “It’s not magic to them. They’re used to seeing crazy things and thinking, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ ”

3-D printers are revolutionizing the classroom in a way we may never have envisioned. They foster hands-on creativity, build enthusiasm, and offer students a new interactive approach, says Mark McPherson, the vice president of Advanced Education, a leading supplier of educational technology solutions that helps to bring 3-D printer curriculum bundles to K–12 schools. Today, teachers are instructing students to design tools such as wrenches or prosthetic limbs with simple-to-use software, then print them out and gauge whether they need to be adjusted, McPherson notes. 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, he says. Bottom line? If STEM is on the minds of secondary school principals, then they clearly should be thinking about 3-D printing.

Beyond STEM

But the impact of 3-D printing reaches far beyond STEM efforts.

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, McPherson says. “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,” he says.

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—such as the one at Analy High School—providing students with accessibility to tools that allow them to create on their own terms.

SMART Interaction

Within makerspaces, 3-D printers are used in conjunction with other educational technologies, such as interactive SMART boards. For example, students can design a tool in a program on a library SMART board, import it directly into the 3-D printer’s software, and print it, McPherson says. 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 3-D printers are increasingly integrated into schools, McPherson says.

Role of the Principal

What’s the role of the secondary school principal in 3-D printing?

Administrators often invest in 3-D printing without planning for their integration into the curriculum, even if it’s down the road (see sidebar below). But in the last couple of years, principals have become more “3-D and makerspace savvy,” education experts say.

Darren Ellwein, principal at Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, and a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, says that 3-D printing and makerspaces are important components of the curriculum at his school. “We have a really great makerspace at South Middle School. It was started by someone with a real passion for it—Travis Lape. We’ve continued it, and we have 3-D printing, coding options for varied levels, and lots of cardboard!” Ellwein says. “Along with being able to tinker and experiment, another goal for our makerspace was to meld it into the curriculum. We wanted a culture of problem solving and learning how to pivot or seek other solutions when roadblocks hit. So, now that’s what we’re doing. We’re taking the maker items, and we’re melding them into places within the curriculum.”

Another 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, David Guerin, principal at Bolivar High School in Missouri is also a fan of 3-D printing. Guerin’s school has a 3-D printer, which it obtained after a marketing teacher wrote a grant. “Students have done some really cool projects,” he says.

Glenn Robbins, a 2016 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year, was an early adopter of the 3-D technology while principal of Northfield Community Middle School in Northfield, NJ. “For sixth grade, we were working with a teacher [in our school] who has multiple sclerosis,” Robbins says. The teacher had struggles inside and outside the building, and she agreed to work with the entire sixth grade and look at how they could design something to help her. “The students are breaking it down, whether they’re going to use one of the 3-D printers, whether they’re going to use some type of resource on their hand-held cellphone or laptop, or whatever it may be, and they’re reaching out to other resources around the world. We’re empowering them to do that,” Robbins says.

Eighth graders at Northfield worked with a company called e-NABLE, which designs 3-D prosthetic hands. “We’ll be producing 26 3-D prosthetic hands that will be customized for children who are in need across the globe,” he says.

A Look to the Future

We will continue to see 3-D printing being utilized in more complex lesson plans for high school students, educators predict. For example, McPherson says innovative mathematics educators are beginning to incorporate 3-D printing for elaborate graphing and complex equations to show 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.

The 3-D printing industry in 2012 was worth $2.2 billion. By the end of 2017, Wohlers Associates, Inc., an additive manufacturing analysis company, estimates that the 3-D printing industry will climb to more than $3.7 billion.The economic outlook is so bright for 3-D printing that the federal government has invested $30 million to establish the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, OH. The institute is a consortium of community colleges, manufacturing firms, nonprofits, and universities that have combined to match the $30 million federal seed money. The institute will assist small manufacturers and train the workforce in additive manufacturing techniques.

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Five Reasons to Incorporate 3-D Printers into Your Curriculum

If a parent or district administrator asks you why you want to introduce 3-D printing into the curriculum, let them know that 3-D printing:

  1. Promotes creativity and innovation. 3-D printing often requires students to think outside the box.
  2. Differs from traditional machining because it creates less waste. In traditional machining, material is drilled or cut, with the leftovers generally discarded.
  3. Allows for prototyping. The printers allow for fast turnaround of models and usable components, saving not just time, but also money.
  4. Fosters timely results. With 3-D printing, an engineer no longer has to send his or her designs out to a production house and wait for the part to come back weeks later before assembling the project’s components.
  5. Enables students to gain an edge in the engineering profession. Experience working on a 3-D printer and in additive manufacturing will be a valuable asset to have, especially in the coming decade.

Recommendations for Principals on Makerspaces and 3-D Printing

Keep the following in mind when considering this new technology:

  • Start small. Begin with an after-school program, then move the program into the mainstream curriculum.
  • Seek in-kind support from vendors. Many vendors (such as Microsoft and Apple in the computer space) have programs that supply schools with materials needed for 3-D printing.
  • Reach out to the community. Community members and parents really like to see kids work with new technology, vicariously perhaps, but also because it could conceivably help the local economy and, most of all, help students succeed in their professional careers.