Thinking And Learning In 3-D

3-D printers interest me. I follow many educators on Twitter that do amazing things with them in the classroom. They have their students thinking. They have their students problem solving. They have their students creating. And they have their students “making” in the most incredible of ways. The thing is that almost every tweet and blog post that I see about 3-D printers contain examples from junior and intermediate classes. As someone that’s taught Grades 5 and 6 before, I can see the overlap with Geometry and Spatial Sense expectations. I just wonder if the same could be true in primary.

Last night, I read a wonderful blog post by Jared Bennett about 3-D printers and the question of their use in classrooms. Jared regularly gets me thinking, and this post of his is no exception. Earlier this year, I actually had many Twitter discussions about maybe using a 3-D printer with my Grade 1’s as part of our learning about structures. Our school was borrowing one at the time, and the timing seemed great. We never did use the 3-D printer though. Why? I think that there were many reasons, all of which are highlighted in the following comments and questions:

  • The software was very difficult to use. Struggling can be a good thing. I talk to my Grade 1’s about this all the time, and they’re always up for a challenge. I also like a good one. But when tweeting with David Hann about using a 3-D printer with my Grade 1’s, he shared his experience with his young child. He said that his son gave him the ideas, but he was the one that worked the software. That’s when I thought about pairing up with a Grade 7/8 class at our school, but I had some concerns. If the Grade 7 and 8 students are doing all of the work with the software, are they also doing all of the thinking? If so, are they the ones that are really doing the learning?
  • I wondered if the Grade 1’s had the schema to be successful with using a 3-D printer. We can build schema, but that takes time. In this case, is the time invested worth it? Would the requirements really align with the Geometry and Spatial Sense skills that the students need to know at this age?
  • I wondered how 3-D printing aligned with curriculum expectations. Yes, in Grade 1, I could see the links to Structures and Materials. I saw the overlaps with 2-D shapes and 3-D figures. But from my vantage point, much of the learning went beyond the curriculum expectations for Grade 1. Based on the curriculum expectations for Grade 1 students, would more time be spent learning the tool/technology instead of learning the curriculum? Would this time be worth it? 

I don’t think that there are easy answers to any of these questions. I also think that the answers may vary based on the students and their needs. Schools always have limited budgets.

  • If money’s being spent of 3-D printers, what’s it not being spent on?
  • Would all teachers and students feel comfortable using 3-D printers?
  • If not, what conditions would need to be in place for them to feel more comfortable?
  • How would students and/or teachers with visual spatial needs do using 3-D printers? What supports could be in place to possibly make them more successful at using this type of technology? 

As I continue to think about 3-D printer use in primary grades, I wonder what would happen if they were purchased for Kindergarten classrooms. 

  • The Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program Document is more open-ended than curriculum expectations for other grades. As such, more time could be invested in learning about the tool as well as the learning that comes as a result of this tool.
  • The play-based learning environment would be an ideal one for incorporating the use of a 3-D printer. When it comes to 3-D printing, I think that students need a chance to play, create, print, test, make changes, and play again. If students are used to a more structured learning environment, I question how they’d do with the playing and creation time needed for 3-D printer success. 
  • There is more than one adult in a Full-Day Kindergarten classroom. Yes, there are often more students than there are in other primary classrooms, but with the additional adult, I see the potential for more small group learning around 3-D printing and various inquiry topics of interest. The 3-D printer would be an extension of a current inquiry, as well as a possible inquiry in itself. 
  • If students started learning about 3-D printing in Kindergarten, the long-term benefits extend from there. Students that know how to use this tool in Kindergarten, could then create even more with it in future grades. The time could be spent though linking to the curriculum expectations and not just learning how to use the tool. 

I see some exciting possibilities. A 3-D printer is an amazing creation device, but where and how do we get students to “create?” What conditions need to exist in a classroom for this to be a successful tool for student learning? Could a Full-Day Kindergarten classroom be the place to start? I’d love to learn more about a tool that intrigues me, but still has me asking a lot of questions.


4 thoughts on “Thinking And Learning In 3-D

  1. As usual, another fantastic and thoughtful post, Aviva! I like how you referenced one of my favourite people, David Hann.
    Although we don’t have a 3D printer at my school, we did employ one with one of our FDK classes. You are right in that they didn’t do the software configurating, but they were involved with the process (thanks to Lisa Dempster’s clear guidelines on turning a 2D shape into a 3D printed solid). A lot of learning – including a Skype call with David to see how it works, as well as an in-person visit for a few kindies with David to give him the fruits of our 3D labour (cookies from the cookie cutter) – happened. The kindies themselves were involved in a lot of the related work, from designing to researching costs related to out-sourcing a printer for our needs. So, I guess what I’m saying is that we can be involved with 3D printing without some of the concerns you addressed (teacher comfort in using, cost to buy, learning the software, etc), as long as we have supportive friends (like David Hann, or also in our case, John Watson from Tap Labs) to help us along the way.

    • Thanks for the comment, Diana! I remember reading your great blog post on this experience, and it’s wonderful to hear how even young students can be involved in the process. I love your thought that with support from others, all students can be involved in the process, but we can eliminate some of the concerns. Maybe this provides an alternative to purchasing 3-D printers for all classrooms. What about teachers though that don’t have these connections? What might you suggest? I’m curious to hear different perspectives on a topic that interests me, but of which I’m still learning a lot.


      • You ask tough questions, Aviva! If I wanted to be glib (and sometimes I do want to toss off a only-half-considered reply), I could say that this is the reason why we need to develop our PLNs, for without this sort of professional networking, knowing and finding someone eager to print a 3D creation at a reduced cost for a class would be nearly impossible. However, that may not be the nicest or most helpful answer. Maybe this is where board STEM initiatives could step up to the plate and have STEM coaches offer resources and connections that Regular-Teacher-in-the-Trenches might not know exist. Or, this is where inquiry learning can “feel real” – if we wanted to learn more about this topic, where could we look? How could we research? After all, if my four-year-olds could search online and discover that it would usually cost about $30 to 3D print their object (or, that if they went to the Metro Reference Library at Yonge Street north of Bloor in Toronto, that 3D printers are available for library patrons to use), why can’t other learners do the same?

        • I totally love your answer here. While I often look to my PLN for support, and did and would do so again in this same situation, I think there’s value in adults experiencing the inquiry process with their students. This is where the learning gets really exciting. Ever since I’ve started using more inquiry in the classroom, I can’t help but question and investigate more than I ever did before. I think this gives me a better understanding of what my students are being asked to do. It also makes me feel more like a learner — and I like that feeling. I wonder if others feel the same way.


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