A new device is starting to appear in sciences classes: the 3D printer. Hitherto the preserve of small communities of Makers and DIY enthusiasts who got together in FabLabs and Maker spaces, these machines are now working their way into classrooms. About the size of a microwave oven, they use CAD programs to create models and then “print out” – layer by layer – actual 3D objects.
According to Jeremy Rifkin, economist and author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society, (Macmillan), the rise of these miraculous machines could revolutionise industry and promote the DIY culture. But their potential goes far beyond that: initially used to make basic objects, they have become increasingly sophisticated and can now be used for more complex creations, ranging from lamps, crockery and furniture to artificial veins and buildings.
It is hardly surprising therefore that their potential has been spotted by the education world – but exactly how can they be used in schools? We looked at how these machines can enable “Digital for All, Now” for students everywhere.
1. FAMILIARISE KIDS TODAY WITH A TOOL THAT WILL BE COMMONPLACE TOMORROW
“We’re at the dawn of a social revolution, comparable to what happened with personal computing forty years ago”, enthuses Romain Pouzol, head of 3D printing at CKAB, a French startup specialising in IoT, and author of the foreword of “Imprimante 3D printer, une révolution en marche” (3D Printing: a revolution in progress). Whilst some schools are tentatively beginning to invest in the technology, the printers are slowly but surely being introduced in other organisations. Case in point: at the end of 2013, Philippe Bajou, Managing Director of the French Post office, teamed up with Sculpteo, a French 3D printer manufacturer, in order to equip a selection of post offices:
“The Post Office plays an essential role in the lives of French citizens and introducing 3D printers is a way for them to discover and experiment with this new industrial revolution,” says Arthur Cassaignau, Head of Marketing for Sculpteo.
So why not in schools too?
“These machines (…) are amazing: they have the power to transform society, to change us from ordinary, passive consumers to into inventive, active consumers,” says Romain Pouzol. “Just as digital technology in general and the Internet in particular have allowed us to remodel the world by digitising it, 3D printing gives us the ability to remodel our physical environment, without additional interfaces.”
2. LINK UP THE DIFFERENT SUBJECTS
Since the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, twelve secondary schools in the Seine-Saint-Denis department (Greater Paris area) have had 3D printers. Schools in the UK, meanwhile, started experimenting with them a couple of years ago with the aim of introducing new methods for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and design. In a report published in October 2013, the UK Department of Education stated its intention to “Equip pupils to understand the application and potential of this new type of technology,” in order to “prepare them for a world in which similar technologies will be increasingly commonplace, particularly in STEM contexts.”
The report went on to say that:
“There is considerable potential, however, for them to be used within a range of STEM subjects, for example to enable links to be made between mathematics, design and physics, for example to enable links to be made between mathematics, design and physics in a similar way to, for example, ‘sound’ enabling links between music, physics (wave properties), biology (hearing) and engineering (concert hall design) “The 3D printer project offered an opportunity for schools to explore innovative ways of teaching STEM subjects, stimulating pupil interest and enriching the curriculum.”
3. INCREASE STUDENTS’ AND STAFF’S MOTIVATION
“All the pupils who have been involved with the 3D printer so far have been inspired by its possibilities. The opportunity to realise a concept or idea quickly into a 3D product is an
incredibly powerful teaching tool,” said David Jermy – Head of DT at Settlebeck School, one of the schools that took part in the report.
The fact of creating something tangible is essential for motivating students. “This kind of tool engages them and enables them to work interactively with the teachers. When students are motivated, they work hard and progress,” says Mélanie Windle, English teacher at the Lycée Sainte-Marie in Aix-en-Provence, France, about the introduction of iPads in the classroom. And the students aren’t the only ones who are stimulated: teachers are equally enthusiastic.
4. EMPOWER TEACHERS
With the proliferation of online communities of 3D printer aficionados, it is now easy to share the documents you need to create an object, and industry and education professionals from the four corners of the globe can exchange ideas and experience on forums.
For this planning and discussion phase is vital to the success of a 3D printing project – another point the Department of Education stressed in its report:
“The project highlighted the need for good quality upfront training of teachers when introducing new technologies including teaching approaches, and sufficient non-contact time to plan the most effective use of the printers. Most schools relied on good technical support both from manufacturers and internal staff to start using the printer effectively.”
Teaching with a 3D printer also means breaking out of the traditional teaching framework: teachers can no longer teach in a compartmentalised way but need to conduct lesson along a more project-based rationale. They need to be able to guide students through the design and development phase and encourage them to develop the full potential of 3D printing before the production stage. For one of the unique advantages of 3D printers is that students can learn about all the difficulties that can arise throughout the design phase. For example, building a prototype for a space shuttle landing on the moon would require students first to research such factors as the problems of living in a hostile environment, such as that on the moon, (coping with the lack of breathable air and reduced gravitational force, etc.), as illustrated in an article in EdTechMagazine.