When my siblings and I were younger, we had a huge tub of Legos we’d amassed from birthdays and holidays. We would spread out all the Legos across my brothers’ room, sifting through them for exactly the pieces we needed for our creations—the wheels and chassis were always hotly contested, because even a combination airplane/restaurant/castle could be made infinitely cooler if it could also roll ponderously across the floor. We also made marble mazes and fortresses out of Jenga blocks and spent nearly all winter one year fitting together a 3D puzzle of the Notre Dame cathedral. Once, we made a working Ferris wheel out of K’Nex. Now, 3D printing is becoming less expensive and less complicated, and students across the country are getting the opportunity to design and build their own creations from the ground up.

Bre Pettis, a co-founder and CEO of MakerBot Industries, imagines that 3D printing will fundamentally alter how students approach design challenges. Rather than working around the limitations of a pre-made set of tools, students will be able to design and print their own items—if the first try doesn’t work, they can just alter the original design and print again. Additional reasons for having 3D printing in the classroom are numerous: The printers could be used to create custom chemical or anatomical models for chemistry and biology courses; design prototypes for engineering, architecture or graphic design courses; and even make food molds and cookie cutters for culinary courses. The range of possibilities keeps expanding as more students and teachers gain access to the technology and interact through online forums such as Thingiverse, where users can upload and download plans for 3D printable items or look through galleries of other users’ creations.

Museums are also getting in on the fun, like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which has used 3D printing to create durable copies of fossil specimens for visitors to handle and use in order to learn about skeleton reconstruction. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, has begun to generate 3D scans of items in its collection, including some indigenous artifacts, fossils, and two life masks of Abraham Lincoln, all of which can be downloaded and 3D-printed anywhere in the world.

In California, Chico High School students have used 3D printing to build manufacturing prototypes for local businesses, learning about design and engineering as well as business principles. The prototypes allow students to confront real-world problems by applying the concepts they learn in school. The process benefits the businesses as well, in that their prototypes are much less expensive and can be made much faster than those their competitors are creating.

The range of uses for 3D printing in education is tremendous, and this is only the beginning of the possibilities. These printers have become easier to build and maintain, less expensive, and more user-friendly since their inception several decades ago, and schools are taking advantage of that accessibility to expand the tools teachers and students have for learning. Imagine learning about DNA by printing strands that can “zip” together like real DNA does, or drafting plans for a building and then printing up a small, accurately scaled model to display. I am confident there are uses for 3D printing that have yet to be thought of; in the meantime, anyone up for designing an airplane/restaurant/castle with wheels?

Did You Know?
There are a few 3D printing pens available now: they work like hot glue guns, with a heating element inside the barrel of the pen and a thin plastic filament that feeds through. The filament is heated just enough to melt and cools quickly once it’s been drawn, allowing the pen’s user to create freehand 3D structures directly in the air. Check out the 3Doodler site for a gallery of exceptional 3D doodles or the LIX site for a brief video showing the pen in action.