3D Printing in Education

I was very pleased to speak today with some of the folks out at the 3D Academy in Hawai’i, who are working with educators to develop STEM skills in young learners and looking at including 3D Printing in their offerings. The potential presented by direct digital manufacturing and rapid prototyping systems in education is starting to gain traction, from the marvelous folks at MakerBot Industries’ Education group to researchers at Penn State whose research Self-Replicating, Open Source, Rapid Prototyping In the Engineering Classroom has been published on ScribD for review.

A simple RepRap 3D Printer

As with SOLID Learning, these researchers identified a whole range of classes that could integrate 3D Printing, in specific through the RepRap hand-built fused deposition modeling self-replicating system. From Physics and Engineering Design, the researchers also noted the potential engagement through Art, Law, Ethics, Psychology and Anthropology as well as several other fields in which the RepRap and its ability to create solid physical models could be used to develop “discipline-specific courses” for further education.

The low cost of a RepRap and the hands-on experience of building one make this an ideal platform for educational investigation and study. RepRaps are also very useful in clean-room environments for biological studies or food preparation applications since the various components (metal rods, brass bushings, etc) can be fully sterilized before assembly to avoid the potential for the introduction of external contaminants from the production or transportation of commercial 3D printers.

Of course there are more complex and attractive versions but at their simplest, RepRaps are little more than an open metal framework with a few wires and electrical components. They cost anywhere between 400 and 900 US dollars apiece to build, depending on options and component quality. Having access to an existing 3D printer allows the production of many structural components for a RepRap, making them able to self-replicate for the most part.

3d parts for a RepRap printer.

Electronics and the “hot end” extruder are still required in addition to 3D printed materials, but these can be easily acquired online or even constructed using common components (stepper motors from old printers, Arduino microprocessor boards from hobby kits, etc). The hot end extruder is generally acquired, but even this can be fashioned if the teacher is familar with metal work and thermocouples.

Many other forms of direct digital manufacturing/rapid prototyping technologies exist, from the MakerBot Replicator that Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot, was kind enough to provide to our research, to high end systems capable of printing in full color (ZCorp) or printing using multiple materials (Objet). We have not yet reached the Start Trek replicator capable of creating “Tea, Earl Gray, Hot” from nothingness – but the current level of technology is more than capable for classroom service and support of students to enrich their learning experience and develop interest in STEM subjects that will build the future.