How many times have you looked at a new piece of education technology, and wondered, ‘how is this actually helping kids learn’? Enter the world of plastic and ed-tech.

Today, we’re talking 3D printers. Specifically, we talked to Jay Galbraith, science teacher at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, about how he integrated 3D printers in his introduction to engineering class to help teach problem solving.

First, why?

Let’s face it; 3D printing is just plain cool. It’s popular right now, and every techie teacher wishes they taught science so they had a reason to get one. But the instructional benefits of having one of these printers goes far beyond having a little fun.

For Galbraith, it started with a visit to a stem school outside of Denver.

“In one class, students were challenged with a simple real-world problem: design a drain cover for the chemistry labs to keep trash from clogging the drain, while still allowing water to pass through.” For these students, the practicality made it meaningful. He adds, “I was blown away at how well the students did when given an authentic problem to solve, and I thought about how engaging that sort of experience could be for our students.”

Authentic problems make for some interesting lessons and projects.

Getting a 3D printer

Luckily, 3D printers are less expensive than they were when they first came out, and many a school have successfully funded them through a campaign. NCA uses Makerbot Replicators, a popular, desktop sized printer for classrooms.

Luckily you can choose from a variety of different software options to get students designing. They range from the pricey dedicated software, to free web-based programs that require no special set up or prior knowledge.

Newark Collegiate Academy uses TinkerCAD, a free web-based version. Galbraith says he chose this version for it’s cost and simplicity.

“Since our students have little or no experience with CAD, we used a simple web-based program called TinkerCAD.  It walks students through basic designs before allowing them to create things on their own models that can be downloaded.”

How to use this in your curriculum

Just having a 3D printer doesn’t make it a valuable learning experience. In introduction to engineering, students are using science to solve problems. The 3D printer fits well into that curriculum.

As Galbraith notes, “It gives some of our kids, who may struggle with traditional content, a huge opportunity to be successful and exercise their creativity.”

Kids in his engineering class are currently using the Makerbot to solve a problem they identified, and will present their solutions to students and faculty at Stevens Institute of Technology later this month.

He adds, “At first students didn’t know what to think about this. Once they saw a small success (with a keychain), many students became hooked.”

Setting up for success

If you are going to give this a try, here are a couple words of wisdom from the NCA team:

  • If at all possible, get a second printer. Galbraith says he underestimated how long it would take to make things. He also wanted a second to control for the breakdowns that inevitably happen with technology.
  • Have students design something simple, like a keychain, before jumping into a problem-solving project. Quick wins build investment.
  • Once kids see the printers printing, have them work in another room. They make noise that can become a distraction.

Also, check out this article for more helpful tips on getting started.

Never Miss a Chance to Make a Difference

Subscribe to KIPP New Jersey’s email newsletter and stay in the loop.

Thank you for subscribing!