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Does 3D Printing Have a Place in Your Higher Education?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

At first consideration, most readers may think that the answer is simply, "No, 3D printing has nothing to offer me in my education!"

You just might be wrong though. 3D printing is the next big technological innovation. Right now the applications are mainly industrial and associated with concepts like the Maker Movement. But, with consumer grade 3D printers becoming more widely available, within a few years, anyone should be able to fabricate almost anything they can envision and design in a 3D modeling program. Imagine designing a 3D object, printing out the pieces and putting them together.  Now picture, instead of a sketch of a molecular structure for chemistry, you printed it out and handed in a physical model that can be manipulated to show changes. What if you could scan and print models of organs to help study biology or anatomy, or the components of a model house in architecture? In art history, why print off a picture when you can replicate ancient artifacts and study them first hand? 3D printing gives students not only the potential to gain hands-on experiences with the physical objects relevant to their studies, it also has the potential to allow them to express their learning in new and exciting ways.

How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing, sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, works by printing, or laying down tiny amounts of some substance, usually plastic, in successive layers to build something.  It is a process similar to building with Lego blocks at a much finer scale. Traditional manufacturing generally works the opposite way, by taking pieces away from a larger form to carve or chip out the final product, like creating a sculpture. In this respect, 3D printing is a far more ecologically friendly process (no waste) than traditional manufacturing. Consumer 3D printers generally use plastic and a 3D scanner or design program to create a blueprint which is then produced in the printer. Professional-grade printers can use a variety of other substances such as metal or rubber. There are even theoretical prototypes that can print at the molecular level – taking raw materials and printing in any conceivable substance atom-by-atom.

For the average person, the idea is pretty straight forward. Scan or design something in 3D (piece by piece if the final product needs to have movable parts), send it to the printer, and then assemble the pieces when they are done printing. In this way, anyone could download the design documents online, print out the pieces of an action figure (copyright issues aside), and assemble it without ever having to go to the store or even visit Amazon! But what can this exciting new technology really offer education?

3D Printing and Teaching
3D printing is not an obvious fit for every academic discipline. It is hard to initially conceive of ways in which it could be used in English, Religious Studies, foreign languages, or some of the social sciences, for example. There are other areas such as physics, engineering, chemistry, and robotics where it is an obvious natural fit. With a little creativity and forethought, however, this technology could become a valuable aspect of nearly any educator’s repertoire.  Here are some suggestions from a variety of disciplines to inspire educators:

  • Chemistry – 3D printing would allow educators to print out complex models of chemical structures or the component parts that students could assemble on their own. These things are already available, but this could streamline and diversify the possibilities for spontaneous learning opportunities.
  • Engineering – Probably the most obvious use of 3D printing, faculty can produce examples and students can design and produce almost anything they can engineer to produce working models.
  • Physics – Physics courses provide another obvious use for 3D printing. Professors and students can design and test working models of any concepts they are studying.
  • Biology – Faculty can print extremely accurate models of organs or models of anything where hands-on access would be useful but is not always practical. Some printers can even produce in biological materials, so students could gain access to a "real" human heart to study without needing to extract it from a cadaver.
  • Business – 3D printing provides opportunities for business faculty to engage their students in hands-on activities in marketing and product development for example, where students create actual product prototypes, and test them in the field for marketing research or product testing.
  • Art – Not every higher education institution has access to great museums. Even those that do, don’t generally offer students the opportunity to put their hands on the works in their collections. 3D printing allows every art or art history student, in every institution to intimately examine any work of art that a faculty member might deem worthy of study.
  • Literature, History, Archaeology, and Foreign Languages – I have lumped these four areas together because the impact of 3D printing on all of them is very similar. 3D printing allows educators in any of these areas to replicate artifacts that can bring real or imagined settings to life, whether from an ancient culture or a modern one. In this way a literature professor could print out copies of the vase from Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn." An archaeologist or historian could use the same sample in their class, or a foreign language professor could print out culturally significant articles from the country they are teaching about. In short, 3D printing allows any educator to bring tangible copies of important items into the classroom for students to see, feel, and ponder.
  • ELearning – 3D printing offers its most innovative use for students not physically present on campus. Imagine the possibility for enhancement when studying any subject that requires hands-on experiences for the distance learner. In art history, elearners could print out a model of the statue you are looking at in class. In biology, they could print out a 3D model of the dissection being discussed.  3D printing levels the playing field between on ground and online education by making more resources available to the elearner than have ever been possible before.

3D Printing and Learning – Student Uses
The uses of 3D printing from an educator’s perspective should be enough to sell anyone on the value of the technology for education. But when the benefits for student learning are also considered, this begins to seem like one of the most significant educational technology advances since the Internet. Here is a look at how students can use this exciting new tool.

    • To Demonstrate Learning – Depending on the field of study, this may or may not be practical, but there is no reason that the model of student presentations can’t adapt to include this new technology in some innovative ways. It is a natural match for fields with tangible outputs like art, business, and many of the life sciences. In areas like literature and the social sciences the fit is more difficult, but still possible with a little creative thought. Students could certainly fabricate models or other creations that demonstrate their understanding of material in ways that could be supplemented by written reports if not completely supplanting them.
    • As a Study Aid – As mentioned in the educator section above, 3D printing provides an opportunity, particularly for online students, to create and have a hands-on experience with artifacts or models that can help them gain valuable insight into the subject matter they are studying.
    • As a career opportunity – In a tough, globally competitive economy innovation and creativity are two skills that anyone can use to make themselves economically viable regardless of education level, or geographic location. 3D printing opens up a world of innovative manufacture and production to everyone. With this technology any creative person can become an inventor. They design their product on a computer and print out prototypes, or even a full-blown product line. Market the new item online, and a new personal business is born. The possibilities are only limited by people’s imaginations and the progress of the technology. As this Business Insider article points out, the technology will improve to such a level that anyone with a desktop 3D printer can custom create anything they want or need. That’s down the road a ways, but starting using the technology early gives students an advantage when it becomes more mainstream.

Time to Print Out Your Future?
So where to begin with incorporating this cool new technology into your higher education? Short of buying your own printer – which is still expensive and fairly limited – if you are interested in playing with the tools or have a specific project in mind, you should consider looking for a Maker Movement location in your area. Getting involved with the Maker Movement can provide the resources and support necessary for starting to sort out 3D printing and the ways it could benefit your teaching or learning. This is a technology that is already taking root in higher education and the business world, so starting now provides early adopters with a head start on an exciting new trend with many benefits both for education and for work beyond the classroom.

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