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Finding purpose for 3D printers in schools

Lower costs, better materials make three-dimensional printing a reality for more districts
3D printing offers multiple ways for students to get hands-on experience and to gain marketable skills before leaving high school
3D printing offers multiple ways for students to get hands-on experience and to gain marketable skills before leaving high school

3D printing at Mahtomedi High School in the outer Minneapolis suburbs has come a long way in four years.

In 2011, the school first opened its fabrication laboratory, or FABLab, with a single 3D printer so students could bring high-level designs to life. 3D printing was too costly for most K12 school leaders, but four years is an eternity when it comes to new technologies.

Today, Mahtomedi High—part of the Mahtomedi Public School District—operates six 3D printers. When it came time to replace the old machine, school officials decided that—because prices had dropped considerably—it made more sense to address growing demand with several, less-expensive models.

Those units can cost around $2,000 each, with metal, plastic, wax and other materials costing 30 cents per gram. Top-of-the-line models cost $7,000 or more with materials at 30 cents per gram.

3D printing offers multiple ways for students to get hands-on experience and to gain marketable skills before leaving high school. Administrators must find ways to integrate the technology into existing courses (such as engineering and design classes) or to enhance new class offerings. Most importantly, CIOs and teachers need to work together to ensure the technology works as a learning tool, rather than just a cutting-edge toy.

Powerful projects

Fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers are the most commonly used in education because they are simple to operate. These units have improved speed, reliability, software and quality. FDM uses a thermoplastic filament and objects are printed in layers.

Training CIOs to use printers

Even as they become more ubiquitous in schools, 3D printing is still an emerging technology, and therefore, a learning curve for CIOs.

The biggest challenge is understanding how to best incorporate the technology for high-volume use by inexperienced users. They will also need to be familiar with the various software options available. Training in the CAD technology that drives 3D printers is a must.

Printers are much easier to use now than they were a few years ago, says Matt Young, engineering specialist at Mahtomedi High School in Minnesota.

But integrating printers into a course curriculum can be more challenging for beginners. To help, most manufacturers have tutorials and videos on their websites, Young says.

A robust curriculum must be built around the printer to make it a fully effective teaching and learning tool. Mahtomedi High offers a two-week summer course to learn how to effectively teach in a FabLab setting—where 3D printers are just one of several high-tech tools used for engineering and design.

Other newer, cheaper technologies also include stereolithography and direct-light-processing desktop 3D printers that use liquids rather than paper, metals or sand, says Dalia Lasaite, CEO of CGTrader, a 3D-model marketplace. Liquids are a less expensive filament with smoother surfaces.

In the past, only teachers operated 3D printers because no one wanted to risk students breaking the expensive machines, says Matt Young, engineering specialist at Mahtomedi High School.

In 2010, for example, schools could spend between $15,000 and $20,000 for a printer and $500 for a cartridge of printing material.

Now, because of the reasonable cost and high usage, students are leading the way in turning their ideas into viable products. At Mahtomedi High, a total of 150 students in five classes have access to the printers. They work on capstone engineering projects, often with the guidance of local businesses.

One student, for instance, created a mind-controlled 3D hand that can grasp a ball and then drop it. Another student developed a complex track system for snowmobiles—so if one of the track pieces breaks, it can be replaced easily with a new, 3D-printed part.

And beginners experiment with 3D printing for the first time in a digital design course titled “How to Make (Almost) Anything.”

Once students at Thompson High School in Alabaster City Schools in Alabama learn the basics of 3D printing, teachers encourage them to devise ideas for group projects, such as designing and building an electric car and creating prosthetic legs.

The process also shows students how projects are approached in the professional world. Right now, the district doesn’t work with any businesses but, for the upcoming school year, engineering teacher Brian Copes plans to partner with a local jeweler so students can design their own class rings.

The numbers of students wanting to enter the engineering program jumped from 60 in the 2014-15 school year to 250 for 2015-16.

Choosing the right printer

A 3D printer company with a strong education background can be invaluable to school leaders hoping to help students turn abstract concepts into working models, says Johan Broer, a MakerBot spokesman.

Each printer company has its own school-focused offerings. A hands-on learning guide and bundled kits along with a curriculum could integrate engineering concepts with core academic knowledge in science, math, art and 3D printing technology.

No matter what printer manufacturer is chosen, CIOs have to do their homework. Things to consider include:

  • Reliability. Because 3D printer technology is at an early stage, the prints often fail—sometimes there is a software glitch, the filament is bad or there is too much heat. Therefore, it’s crucial to learn as much as possible about the reliability of the printer. Several unbiased 3D printer ratings can be found on the web, and asking other educators for advice will provide valuable insight.
  • Ease of use. IT staff, educators and students with varying skill levels will use the printers, so it must be easy to set printers to the right temperature and calibrate the correct height between the nozzle and the printer bed.
  • Technology. 3D printing technology is advancing quickly, which means CIOs will have to upgrade. Mahtomedi High School assumes its printers will be used for less than two years before they are outdated—another reason the district bought less expensive printers.

Other considerations

Choosing a printer is only one part of the process. CIOs also need to consider the following issues:

  • Maintenance and support. Heavy use and inexperienced users will take a toll on the machines. At Mahtomedi High School, too many students using a single printer led to breakdowns. But even with multiple machines, certain parts—like the extruders—wear down quickly. While major problems are usually written into contracts and warranties, ensure someone on staff can fix a software glitch or other small problem. Maintenance packages have structured pricing, so schools can control the costs. The average service package can cost approximately $2,000 a year, including continued tech support and a limited parts warranty, Young says.
  • Software. Larger companies provide proprietary software for their printers. Smaller companies often modify available software to work with their models. The 3D-design software market is growing, and many products are supported by a variety of operating systems. Software can be curriculum-specific.
  • Networking printers. Can the printer be used with Wi-Fi, Ethernet or a USB drive? Network compatibility and bandwidth are technical issues that CIOs must solve before putting a machine online.
  • Choosing printing materials. Most FDM printers have fairly affordable materials. A spool of plastic filament can cost less than $30, and one-kilogram spool of filament can create more than 350 full-size chess pieces.

Sue Poremba is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.