3-D Printing In Education

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This research is intended for district administrators, school leaders, and classroom teachers, to help them better understand the role that 3D printing can play in improving student engagement and learning outcomes within the context of some of the most important academic movements in education today.


Even though 3D printers have been around for almost 30 years, the recent rise of low-cost printers has led some to proclaim the onset of a new industrial revolution. Schools and libraries all over the world are bringing these powerful tools to students in classrooms and dedicated “maker spaces” where they are accompanied by other fabrication tools.

If 3D printing is starting a new industrial revolution, it is well on its way to revolutionizing teaching and learning as well. The result of bringing these tools into classrooms is a rekindling of the powerful pedagogy of hands-on learning. As we will demonstrate, 3D printing leverages hands-on learning to deepen our educational approach to traditional academic subjects.There are two aspects of teaching and learning that are addressed by 3D printing—the content of a subject area, and the pedagogy, the teaching and learning method to convey that content. In this research we will show how content and pedagogy are converging in today’s most promising education movements and the role that 3D printing plays in supporting these critical shifts.

1. Content: Starting with Standards

The adoption of new standards, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), is addressing serious weaknesses in our current approach to content learning, in part by embedding powerful pedagogical approaches into the content standards themselves.

The first of the new standards that have strong connections to 3D printing are the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which include engineering as one of the disciplinary core ideas, starting in kindergarten all the way through high school. Unlike older standards, the NGSS are less about a specific curriculum and more about how learning takes place. In this case, the focus is on inquiry driven project-based learning where the student develops deep understandings through the creation of projects and products. In the domain of mathematics, the new Common Core State Standards have a similar emphasis on inquiry and learning through doing.

To see the connection between these 21st century standards and 3D printing, let’s start with the Common Core Math Standards. There are only eight of them:

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. 
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively. 
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. 
  4. Model with mathematics. 
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically. 
  6. Attend to precision. 
  7. Look for and make use of structure. 
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Looking at these standards in the context of 3D printing, several of them leap out. Virtually all 3D projects call for accuracy in measurements (Standard 2). Modeling with mathematics (Standard 4) is also commonplace, as is the strategic use of appropriate tools (Standard 5). Precision (Standard 6) is important when structures are made of parts that have to fit together. The use of structure in 3D designs relates quite well to Standard 7. By challenging themselves in designing objects for the 3D printer, students will certainly participate in problem-solving and persevering until the object is made to their satisfaction (Standard 1).

In other words, virtually every design students make and print incorporates six of the eight math standards. It is fairly easy to connect to the remaining standards, particularly through collaborative approaches (Standard 3) and presentations of projects (Standard 8).

As for the NGSS, there are seven core principles that define the scope of these standards. 

  1. K-12 science education should reflect the interconnected nature of science as it is practiced and experienced in the real world. 
  2. The Next Generation Science Standards are student performance expectations, not curriculum. 
  3. The science concepts in the NGSS build coherently across K–12. 
  4. The NGSS focus on deeper understanding of content as well as application of content. 
  5. Science and engineering are integrated in the NGSS, from kindergarten onward. 
  6. The NGSS are designed to prepare students for college, career, and citizenship. 
  7. The NGSS and Common Core State Standards (English language arts and mathematics) are aligned.

All seven of these core principles of the NGSS can be applied to the use of 3D printing in the classroom because 3D printing is, at heart, about how hands-on, experiential artifact-making can engender deep understanding of the science behind how the world works, even for the youngest students.

While teachers are comfortable with some of the main disciplines, engineering is a concern for many, mostly because of a lack of familiarity with how engineers do their work but also because it’s a subject that few have taken in their academic careers.

 Science explores the world of the found, engineering explores the world of the made. Rather than make discoveries of naturally occurring phenomena, engineers design new things from the ground up. One of the common practices of most engineers is “tinkering:” experimenting with a design through trial and error until it is successful. Since tinkering is a common concept to just about everyone, the general topic of engineering becomes less intimidating, even for those educators with no formal background in the discipline. 3D printing makes engineering come alive for even the most uninitiated educators, as it provides a powerful tool for scientific tinkering.

It is important to note that even though some states have not adopted the new standards, these states still care about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The fit between STEM subjects and 3D printing is quite natural, whether or not the new standards are adopted.

2. Pedagogy: Learning through actually doing

Every teacher knows there are multiple pathways to learning. Some students learn best from listening or reading, others from dialogue, some from reflection, and still others from the creation of artifacts. This latter form of learning is critical for deep understanding because it is through the doing of a task that one truly comes to know what is understood and what is not.

The world of 3D printing in the classroom is abundant in opportunities for constructionism. The creation of physical objects with a 3D printer often requires a few tries to get right, especially for complex objects. Sometimes the flaw is in the design itself, other times it is a flaw in the choice of materials or print density resulting in parts that lack the strength needed to work properly. In any case, the process of refinement (what we have thus far called tinkering) is a critical step in the building of true understanding.

Student engagement is a key element of deep learning, and anyone watching a child build something with a 3D printer gets to see fully engaged students. This engagement doesn’t come from the novelty of the process, but from the joy of seeing something designed by actually take shape. When students are engaged, the things they learn have lasting value. Their learning transcends content because it is contextual.Older teaching methods focus on content, not context, which often prompts students to ask if something is going to be on a test, since they fail to see the lasting value in what they are being asked to learn. The fact is that all subjects can be taught in a contextual manner, and this kind of learning comes automatically for projects using 3D printers.

3. Let’s have 3D printers in schools

As this is being written, there are many 3D printers on the market at a wide range of price points. The printers most often found in schools use extruded plastic filament that is laid down on the print bed, layer by layer, to build a part. The two common plastics used are ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene,) the same plastic as that used in popular snap-together blocks, and PLA (polyactic acid,) generally made from corn starch. This plastic is biodegradable, and either plastic works well for school projects.

Because parts are made from very thin layers, it is not uncommon to see print jobs take an hour or more to print—more time than a traditional classroom period. Student projects typically are printed overnight. And while steps are being taken to make faster printers, one present-day solution is to use a printer with a large print bed. This allows several projects to be printed at the same time. The total print time may be the same (typically determined by the largest part,) yet the ability to do several student projects together improves overall throughput.


Just as personal computers have become commonplace tools for learning, we see a similar future for 3D printing. As with the computer before it, schools may start with one printer, and then move to one printer per classroom. In addition (as with computers), it is likely that low-cost printers will start showing up in student homes. Since the format for 3D shape designs is universal, most printers can make the same parts (given size constraints). 

3D printers have a powerful role to play in the classroom. In addition to strong curricular connections to modern standards, these machines support 21st century pedagogies that not only engage students in their present learning but teach them how to be “tinkerers” in learning the rest of their lives.


Dr. Thornburg has been writer, speaker, teacher, and visionary in the field of educational technology for decades and is the lead author of the book The Invent to Learn Guide to 3D printing in the Classroom.