That looks really cool but all the things I see just look like little plastic toys. Is there really any educational value to be gained from a 3D printer?

This question comes up quite a bit here at UMW and I think it’s a fair one to ask. After all, we’re an educational institution and the mission of the University isn’t to just buy things that are fun to play with (that’s a side benefit!). Given that George Meadows and I will be teaching a freshman seminar course in the fall integrating 3D printing technology it’s especially important for us to figure this out.

There are many ways I could answer this question depending on my approach. We talk a lot about the rise of the “Maker Culture” and the power behind putting creation in the hands of students. I think that has real educational value. I also think there’s real value in experimentation and understanding that sometimes learning involves exploring without knowing where it will lead. Creativity and understanding happen at the very edges of our understanding and I’d rather being handing students a flashlight and asking them to go to those dark edges than handing them a pre-generated form filled solution to their own knowledge.

But let’s look at this question at its very absolute basis: “What can I print that might have value in my classroom?” I think that obviously depends on what discipline you teach but I’m going to try to tackle a few of them here with some example objects that might help you visualize something in a real way for your students.

Math

Chemistry

Biology

Art

Education

That list is just a start based on what I’ve been looking at on Thingiverse. The field grows each day and with news that the Smithsonian is going to start digitizing 3D models of their work I expect in the next 2-4 years we’re going to see this niche technology explode. Have you come across any interesting models you could use in your classroom?

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