Headlines: October 23rd, 2013

A trial of 3D printers in 20 schools has shown that they do enrich teaching across science, technology, engineering,mathematics and design subjects. The schools were successful in exploring innovative ways of using the technology to help teach more complex scientific and mathematical ideas.

3D printing is now an established industrial technology used for prototyping and manufacturing products and components across a range of industries. It already has applications in many areas of everyday life.

Science and mathematics departments explored the potential of 3D printing within their subject area. Many schools reported high levels of pupil motivation when engaged in the projects. The projects helped pupils to realise a concept or idea quickly.

The lead engagement of 3D printing in the pilot schools frequently came from design and technology staff who organised the printing for mathematics and science teachers. This allowed teachers from science technology engineering and mathematics to see how their subject could make use of the printer. The projects moved pupils away from the practicality of design, i.e. how to use a saw, and allowed more opportunity to see how maths and science are an integral part of the process.

Products developed by pupils from 3D printers included letter stands, business card holders and phone stands, brackets and injection moulded cases for GCSE engineering projects, and vacuum formers and model bottles for GCSE Graphics. A printer was also used to demonstrate a 3D graph for various algebraic equations as well as producing examples of regular shapes (Dodecahedron).

In addition to production skills, this involved aspects of the physics curriculum, such as chair stability, forces weighing down during chair occupancy and equilibrium within chair production. Pupils also applied mathematics, such as trigonometry involved in calculating back angles, plotting coordinates in the software so designs would maintain balance once printed by the 3D printer, and performing a costing exercise to evaluate value for money.

Some schools reported that pupils with poor concentration were able to see tangible results more quickly and as a result they kept interest in the lesson. Several pupils commented that they could make shapes and components on a 3D printer that they couldn’t make with the technology they had in class. They were able to explore more complex designs and ideas which meant they remained more interested.

The projects confirmed that 3D printers cannot be introduced to school quickly or easily. It is important to factor in time required to train teachers and embed new approaches to teaching. This allows teachers starting from a lower base of expertise in 3D technologies adequate time to reflect on the various possibilities and to work with other teachers to develop and implement their ideas.

Feedback from this exploratory project confirms that 3D printers have significant potential as a teaching resource and can have a positive impact on pupil engagement and learning if schools can master how to use the printers in an effective and meaningful way.

Individual schools must now decide how to integrate new technologies into the curriculum.

The Department for Education report: 3D Printers in Schools is available here.