3D Printing: The New Technological Frontier to Engage Students in STEM & Manufacturing

The constant and consistent call to action for American education has been to increase their interest and performance in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Additionally, a recent clarion call has been issued to inform students about the important role of manufacturing in our nation’s economic growth, homeland security, and desire to remain the most competitive and innovative nation in the world. Educators have discovered that robotics is a low-cost, effective method of providing engaging, exciting, and enriching lessons in literacy, mathematics, science and technology. Using robotics as a hook in K-12 education has become a successful initiative for increasing the interest of both boys and girls in STEM career and educational pathways. 

The “Maker Movement” centered on 3D printing, is driving a similar effect on STEM interest for our youth. With the ease of use and the availability of 3D printers, formal and informal educators are using additive manufacturing projects with students to peak their curiosity about “making” and manufacturing. Just as robotics offers a relatively easy entry into programming and problem solving, 3D printers can be the first step to introduce students to the processes of planning, designing, making and testing their own ”products”.

Through the push of the maker movement, hobbyists’ insatiable demand for 3D printers have driven
the costs of printers down so that they are fairly reasonable for most school districts and even families. The software needed to make 3D models is accessible to students free of charge.  Students can download 3D CAD software from Autodesk for free while younger students may use Autodesk’s Tinkercad software online. The one crucial ingredient needed to really make 3D printing ubiquitous in schools is curriculum and curriculum integration. Robotics had a huge increase in momentum when educational institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, Tufts, and Sinclair Community College developed and disseminated curriculum, resources, and challenges that formal and informal educators could use inside and outside the classroom. These curricula include alignment to academic standards so teachers can integrate into their existing curriculum.  Many teachers need professional development, but after a few targeted sessions together with good curriculum, they are on their way. Across the country students began using robots to design, build and program robots of all types and learning, and reinforcing science, technology, engineering and math principles at the same time. 

The 2007 FLATE robotics camps for middle school students were cutting edge and unique among summer camp offerings for kids. FLATE’s Best Practice Guide for Robotics Camp, published in 2009, has been distributed nationwide and used by colleges, university, and non-profit groups everywhere to increase STEM outreach efforts. Additionally, FLATE, in partnership with other organizations, has coordinated professional development workshops to help educators integrate robotics concepts into their classroom curriculum to meet state standards in mathematics, science, literacy, and technology. A few other organizations in Florida also started offering robotics camps, however, the idea of teaching K-12 students to program robots was not mainstream five years ago.  

3D printing/additive manufacturing should follow a similar path. In order for educators to stimulate
students with 3D printing, standardized curriculum and integration models are needed.   3D modeling can help students understand some advanced math concepts in geometry, algebra and trigonometry. Science students can discover the differences in materials used for manufacturing. 3D printing, like robotics, can help students develop teamwork skills, improved problem-solving skills and expose students to the engineering design process. Structured lessons for all secondary levels and educator professional development will provide the support that education needs to use 3D printing as another powerful tool to engage students in relevancy of STEM in their everyday lives and provide the opportunities for them to explore and consider STEM career paths.  

Each summer, FLATE offers a high school camp in which students use SolidWorks to design objects based on given design specifications. In 2015, campers will incorporate microprocessors and 3D printers for their camp projects. 3D printers will be added to a growing list of 21st century technologies that must be used to help engage students in STEM and keep our nation globally competitive and the number one innovative nation in the world.  For more information about additive manufacturing contact Dr. Marilyn Barger at barger@fl-ate.org. For information about FLATE summer camps contact Desh Bagley at bagley@fl-ate.org, or visit http://madeinflorida.org/camps-workshops.