3D Printing in an Elementary Classroom

As an upper elementary educator, I am in the business of making the intangible, tangible; the abstract, concrete; the imagined, real. As such, 3D printing is a technology trend in education that intrigued me. The more I researched, the more excited I became about the possibilities of bringing learning to life. I have honed my research to address three main questions:

  1. What is 3D printing?
  2. How can it be used in an elementary classroom?
  3. What are the learner benefits to utilizing this type of technology?

First, what is it & how does it work? According to the 2016 Horizon Report, 3D printing “refers to technologies that construct physical objects from three-dimensional (3D) digital content such as 3D modeling software, computer-aided design (CAD) tools, computer-aided tomography (CAT), and X-ray crystallography” (pg. 40). Essentially, it enables users to turn a two dimensional sketch, drawing, or design into a three dimensional, physical model. This type of “rapid prototyping” creates these models one layer at a time from a digital file. Finley of Edutopia delineates three different ways to create this original digital file: using a computer modeling program to create an original object, using a 3D scanner to take millions of measurements of a real world object, or using a editable template from sites like  Instructables, YouMagine, TurboSquid, CubeHero, or the popular MakerBot Thingverse community.

Check out this video to watch a 3D printer in action:

The applications beyond the classroom are extensive: everything from constructing parts of airplane engines and space exploration vehicles,

…to companies like BioBots using 3D printing to print human organs,


Image Source: http://www.healthwareinternational.com/blogpost/how-can-3d-printing-revolutionize-healthcare-411

…to developing functioning prosthetic limbs


Likewise, the applications within the classroom are extensive. For example, the technology can be used to teach the design process in a hands on and creative way.


Image Source:  http://pbskids.org/designsquad/parentseducators/workshop/process.html


Students could follow this CityX curriculum to use 3D printing to explore the design process: http://www.cityxproject.com/toolkit/

For my artifact, I created a lesson plan that utilizes 3D printing by having students identify a real world problem and design something through TinkerCAD to solve their problem.

Check out my lesson here!

If I reflect on this lesson through best practices, then my activity idea effectively utilizes active learning. According to the Department of Education, (2006) active learning is the “process in which students are engaged in hands on activities rather than passively receiving knowledge” (pg. 6). My students could learn the steps of the design process by rote memorization of the steps, but according to best practices, students will better engage and learn when the activities involved allow students to ask questions and test their theories. Thus, 3D printing allows students to internalize the steps of the design process as they create in an authentic way.  

If I reflect upon this lesson through the SAMR model, then my activity idea is at the modification level. This level suggests that the technology utilized “allows for a significant task redesign” (2:03). By creating an opportunity for students to use 3D printing to demonstrate their understanding of the design process, I am creating a transformative learning opportunity. While it is possible for students to understand and use the design process without 3D printing, this technology activates a different skill set and engages learners in the process in a different way. If you are unfamiliar with the SAMR model, check out this video to learn more:


Beyond utilizing 3D printing to teach the design process, there are other potential applications for once they have experienced how to design and create through 3D printing. Students could use the technology to supplement their learning of other grade level curriculum. For instance, in reading, they could practice visualization and create a tangible model of an important aspect of a novel, like this student that created the sled from The Giver by Lois Lowry:


Image Source: http://www.freetech4teachers.com/2015/06/3d-printers-in-elementary-school.html#.V1EMLxWDGko

Or, during a social studies unit, students could create artifacts based on the time period or people of study.


Image Source:  http://clarkbarnett.com/techcamp/?p=148

Another opportunity for hands on learning is after a science study of forces and motion, students could design different types of wheels for a drag car that would make the car the most aerodynamic or fast.

Ultimately, the possibilities are endless as 3D printers help bring learning to life as students are able to turn their ideas and intangible thoughts into concrete physical representations.

Now that I have briefly outlined what 3D printing is and potential classroom applications, I am left with a growing conviction that 3D printing offers unparalleled learner benefits in an elementary classroom. 3D printing places students at the helm of their own learning as they become designers and makers. Students have the opportunity to become the leaders and teachers in the class as they share their ideas with their peers while at the same time facilitating strong grade level content knowledge. In these types of authentic learning opportunities, students are engaged in the process of watching the pieces of their imagination come to life.


Department of Education. (2008). Best practices a resource for teachers.Retrieved from http://www.publicschools.org/docs/curriculum/bpractices2.pdf

Finley, T. (2015, June 30). Jaw-Dropping classroom 3D printer creations. Edutopia. Retrieved  from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/jaw-dropping-classroom-3d-printer-todd-finley

K. Schrock. 3D Printing. (2014, September 20). Retrieved from http://www.schrockguide.net/3d-printing.html

K. Winsper. (2014, July 10). 3D Printing in the classroom is elementary. Fractus Learning. Retrieved from http://www.fractuslearning.com/2014/07/10/3d-printing-elementary/

NMC. (2015). Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 edition. Retrieved from http://cdn.nmc.org/media/2015-nmc-horizon-report-k12-EN.pdf

PBS Kids. Design squad global.. (2016). Retrieved from http://pbskids.org/designsquad/

Project Ignite. (2014). Retrieved June 3, 2016, from https://projectignite.autodesk.com/S. Martinez. (2014, March 7). 29 project starters for 3D printers. Invent To Learn. Retrieved from http://inventtolearn.com/3d-printer-project-starters/

T. Eichholz. 3D Printers in elementary school. Free Technology for Teachers. (2015, January 15). Retrieved from http://www.freetech4teachers.com/2015/06/3d-printers-in-elementary-school.html

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