3D printers are becoming more and more common in schools but many teachers don’t know how they can be used in subjects other than a tech class. These 11 brilliant 3D printing ideas can be used in many different subjects.
11 Great 3D Printing Ideas for Engaging Elementary Lessons
The latest technology being used in schools to teach a wide variety of subjects is the 3D printer.
Maybe someday it will be commonplace, but right now it’s like magic. It’s a great tool for teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills as well as collaboration, communication and metacognitive problem-solving.
3D printers make solid objects out of light plastic applying it layer by layer directed by a 3D modelling program. Before starting the program, you may need some technical tips.
There are several different models available that are suitable for an elementary classroom. With transparent covers on most printers, students can watch the printing with amazement as the object is built.
Increase Student Engagement with 3D Printing
Lessons that are supported by a 3D printer keep your students engaged and motivated from the first step to the final product.
They are encouraged to design, create and explore possibilities that most of us never thought were possible.
Whether they create a model of an ancient engine, a Shakespearian character in full costume or a replica of an ancient artifact, it all becomes possible with a 3D printer.
Unless you already know the 3D ropes, you may want to take some time to become an expert as this will give your students a better experience at first. At some point, they will be way ahead of you.
Three ways students can create 3D objects are:
- Scan a drawing or photo of something that exists such as the skull of a T-Rex
- Download a template of one of the thousands of objects that are already designed and put online
- Design an original object using a computer-aided (CAD) modelling program
Gone are the days of drawings and cutouts. Today, they can create the real thing. Here are some of the best activities I have done in my elementary classroom that fulfilled innumerable learning objectives.
1) 3D Printing for Geography Lessons
Physical maps are the key to teaching landforms. Learn the benefits of 3D printing for geography lessons.
For example, California has the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the east, the central valley where a large percentage of the fruits and veggies we eat are grown and the Mohave Desert in the south, plus amazing forests and coastline features such as bays and harbors.
All of these features can be designed and processed by 3D software and a physical map of the state can be printed. When teaching maps and geographical formations, 3D printing is not only exciting for students but also provides geographical education that is lightyears from a textbook.
2) 3D Printing for History Lessons
Creating a castle from geometric shapes and 3D printing it is an all-inclusive activity for the whole class. It involves measuring, geometry, coding and more.
Another fun activity was creating ancient artifacts and 3D printing them. This activity was mainly about ancient history and we created 3D suits of armor, the Rosetta Stone, dinosaur fossils and a model of the Acropolis.
3) 3D Printing in Biology Lessons
My students were studying insects and arachnids and learning about the sections of the body, number of eyes and number of legs.
After identifying the features of each, I asked them to design a bug that adhered to the required features of each.
For example, the legs have to support the weight of the body and some insects have wings. 3D printing of the various new insects was the highlight of three weeks of biology lessons.
4) 3D Printing in STEM Lessons
STEM and STEAM, (the A stands for Art) naturally fit with project-based learning. Students integrate several disciplines including science, math and design to understand concepts.
This also requires creativity, collaboration and problem-solving. A 3D printer is a top tool for these lessons for maximum student engagement.
As mentioned above, the 3D printer allows you to integrate engineering and technology into language and history subjects.
In small groups, my students designed the best protection for the common egg-drop. They thought of things I never would have and all of them worked.
One actually used a model of COVID-19 and put the egg inside!
5) 3D Printing in Maths Lessons
There are multiple (no pun intended) ways to teach math with a 3D printer, but one of the best is fractions and decimals.
My students chose an object and decided how to divide it into different fractions. First of all, they had to understand what a fraction is, then they had to pick an object, measure it and choose the places to cut to get four (or whatever) equal quarters.
We printed each quarter separately and combined them to create the whole object. It was easy to introduce decimals when they were holding the divided objects in their hands.
6) Use 3D Printing to Create Human Organs
This activity had a huge impact on my students. To actually hold a heart or a skull in their hands really made them think.
A skull has mostly been a design element on T-shirts, jewellery and backpacks or a major feature of a horror movie, but when connected to science, it was the first time my students realised that each one of them had this sinister-looking object in their head.
7) Use 3D Printing to Study Dinosaurs
Most children go through a few years of fascination with dinosaurs.
You can buy small plastic dinosaurs in bag-loads, but are they accurate and when did they exist? When my students studied the epochs and learned the dinosaurs that lived in each one, they realised that there was no category called dinosaurs.
This started a frenzy of learning and 3D printing of the different giant beasts throughout the epochs from the Palaeozoic Era to the Mesozoic Era to the current Cenozoic Era.
Some students drew a large timeline as the background showing plants and landforms that existed in each epoch.
This was one of the best activities of the year and was displayed in the lobby of the school for all to see.
8) Use 3D Printing to Create Puzzles
Teachers and students alike can create math manipulatives to teach math concepts such as the four basic operations, fractions and place value.
Designed properly, they can also be used to teach algebra and more.
I asked my class to design jig-saw puzzles with at least 25 pieces. They had to have a picture or graphic and the pieces had to fit together.
They worked in pairs and we printed out each piece and board. It took two weeks to complete, but the children had a great time and learn a lot about area, teamwork, color, graphics and more.
Many puzzles are educational such as the hyperboloid tool, a straight line that can be manipulated to glide through a curved hole, da Vinci’s aerial screw or helicopter prototype and Archimedes’ screw.
When these are 3D printed, they inspire wonder and open the door to many different worlds in science and history.
These fun and intriguing puzzles bring math to life and give the student a real boost in his or her math and engineering skills.
9) Use Pre-Made 3D Printing Kits
STEM kits for creating robots are hugely popular for children and teach a myriad of skills.
You may balk at the expense, but this is the time to make collaborative teams that work on one robot.
Then you only need three or four kits. The 3D printer prints each component and the students assemble the robot. The different parts can even be customised.
Some kits can even teach coding to pre-K students. The instructions are super simple and the students learn about volume, engineering design, programming and more.
10) Use 3D Printing to Teach Coding
This one isn’t really a project, but it was the basis for all of the above learning activities. I taught my students the steps to create the “slice” required for the printer to read a 2D object and turn it into a 3D object.
Rather than printing text or pictures on a page, the printer builds the object from the bottom up by extruding molten plastic, or other materials from a nozzle. It still amazes me how quickly young children grasp the concepts of technology.
According to a report produced at the University of California at Davis, 3D printing and robotics provide experiential learning experiences from an early age that will help them in their higher education STEM-related subjects.
The importance of these kinds of experiences can’t be overstated. Not only do they learn the technology, but they learn teamwork, collaboration and communication.
You may think that elementary school is a bit early to learn about the technology that may be obsolete in five years or less. While this may have been true 10 years ago, it is not true now.
Coding may change, but if you know the basics from an early age, it will be far easier to change with it than to start from square one.
11) The Most Popular 3D Printed Items:
- A cutaway Earth model that can be painted – It shows the crust, mantle, outer core and inner core
- A satellite view model of a hurricane – It has the eye and swirling clouds of the formation of the storm. It makes it easy to visualise the phenomenon and gives an idea of the gigantic size of the storm with outlines of land also seen.
- Different types of bridges – students can design their own bridges or make models of suspension, beam, arch, cantilever, truss or cable-stayed bridges. This can be linked to cities and rivers where the different bridges are found.
- Different ancient ruins – The Pyramids of Giza, Chinchen Itza, Roman Colosseum, Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty and many more monuments and ancient wonders can be created.
You Will Be Surprised at the Positive Change in your Class.
It may take a little time for you to learn all you can about the use of 3D printers in the classroom. But, it is well worth the effort because the learning experience it gives to your students is exponential.
You may find as I did that they pick it up quickly and develop amazing educational uses that I never thought of.
3D Printing Ideas FAQ
3D printing can be used in many subjects, not just the obvious tech and computer classes. Building organs or bugs in Science, ancient buildings in History or even 3D maps in Geography.
3D printing is the ultimate tool for building engagement. it is an exciting tools that all students want to learn. It complements many curricula and allows students to build new problem solving skills.