3D Printing in Education

How High Schools, Colleges, and Universities Leverage 3D Printing Technology.

By Terry Wohlers

"3Dprinting" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the September/October 2005 issue.

Where and how are 3D printers used in education? The applications for the technology and the institutions where it is used are seemingly as diverse as the types of models 3D printers can produce. Institutions ranging from high schools and vocational-technical schools to community colleges and leading universities have purchased 3D printers and are using them for a variety of purposes. The most obvious application of 3D printing at an educational institution is supporting design engineering courses that use CAD software, so students can make models of the designs they develop. Yet this represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of existing and potential applications for the technology. And perhaps the greatest impact of all is how the "wow" factor associated with 3D printing can inspire, excite, and recruit young people to pursue a career in engineering.

Restoring the luster to engineering

At one time—back during the space race of the 1960s and 1970s—young people held the engineering profession in high regard. Many children and teenagers who watched the moon landings on television went on to pursue engineering careers, inspired by the work of the numerous engineers whose efforts helped to put man into space. However, the esteem in which engineers were once held began to wane during the 1980s and 1990s with fewer and fewer young people in the United States interested in engineering careers.

Today, high schools and vocational-technical schools across the country are using 3D printing technology to restore young people's desire and enthusiasm for engineering by exposing them to a tangible design environment that produces an actual physical model.

The recent success of a high school team at the RoboCup 2005 World Robotics Championship illustrates just how enthusiasm can produce achievement. Timothy Jump, a teacher at Benilde-St. Margaret's High School, a private college preparatory school in St. Louis, Missouri, is the director of the school's Advanced Competitive Science (ACS) Program. It is a conceptual engineering program conducted over a period of eight years beginning in the fourth grade. This past year, Jump's team of high school students used the combination of CAD, a 3D printer, and traditional machining techniques to develop an urban search and rescue robot. Not only did the high school team enter its robot in the U.S. Open Robotics Championship, where it was the sole high school competing against the creations of teams comprised of college and graduate students from the country's top universities, the Benilde-St. Margaret's team won first place. Also, it received an invitation to the RoboCup 2005 World Robotics Championship in Osaka, Japan, where, in competition against 24 teams from the world's top universities, the high school team placed tenth.

"Until 3D printing came along, we were unable to show young people the beauty of the engineering process, taking an initial idea all the way to completion, until late in their educational experience," Jump says. "3D printing stimulates a student's mechanical-spatial awareness in ways that textbooks cannot."

Don Jalbert, a CAD/CAM mechanical design instructor at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center in Lewiston, Maine, says 3D printers can help young people realize they have a knack for engineering. "When I taught CAD 10 years ago, the concepts were wholly theoretical because the students could not touch or feel the objects they created. Now with the 3D printer, students can do much more than draw a part. They can evaluate it, refine it, assess how it fits in a larger assembly, and hand it to people. The 3D printer is a great recruiting tool for getting students excited about engineering."

Teaching and research

Universities and colleges use 3D printers in a similar fashion for use with CAD systems to support design and engineering coursework, but also for other types of disciplines, such as architecture and fine arts courses, and research. As more high schools add 3D printers to their programs, colleges and universities will be able to elevate the complexity of the course content they offer and increase research efforts.

To encourage the use of 3D printing technology in high schools and vocational-technical schools, the National Science Foundation (NSF) underwrote the development of a formal rapid prototyping curriculum by educators at Saddleback College, a two-year community college in Southern California, in conjunction with Z Corporation, a leading 3D printer manufacturer.

Dr. Ken Patton, Dean of Workforce Economic Development at Saddleback College, who helped develop the NSF-funded rapid prototyping curriculum, says the educational benefits of 3D printing extend beyond the classroom. "In addition to formal coursework, we use our 3D printers to support economic development and technology transfer to industry," Patton notes. "We help start-ups and spin-offs with initial prototyping and use our machines to educate them on how to use the technology to solve real-world engineering and manufacturing problems."

The trend toward real-world applications in education that underlies the growth of 3D printing at the high-school level is also taking place at universities. For example, at the University of Texas at Austin, the Department of Mechanical Engineering is in the process of transforming its curriculum as part of its PROCEED (Project-Centered Education) initiative. According to Dr. David Bourell, the initiative is based on using real applications in engineering, which the combination of CAD and 3D printing facilitates, to enhance student learning. "Anything we can do to give students a more tangible experience and a greater appreciation of what engineering is really like will improve the educational experience," Bourell says.

University research related to 3D printers either involves the examination of new 3D printing materials and processes or the use of 3D printers to create models for other types of research. At Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, a group under the supervision of Professor Phil Dickens is researching the application of screen-printing techniques to produce large-scale models as well as the use of parts produced on a 3D printer in building construction. At the Milwaukee School of Engineering, medical researchers have used a 3D printer to create a complete databank of biomolecular models, according to Vito Gervasi, manager of Research and Development for the school's Rapid Prototyping Center. The school produces complex color models of protein molecules and other biological molecules of interest, such as anthrax, to support biological education and research.

The use of 3D printing technology in education is growing quickly because educators at all levels and from many areas of expertise can see how the technology helps students learn in very real, visual, and tangible ways.

Industry consultant, analyst and speaker Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). Visit wohlersassociates.com for more information.