From chess figures to architectural models, something is always cooking inside Adam Gebhardt’s classroom at Jefferson Elementary School in Jefferson Hills, Penn., where a LulzBot 3D printer whirls away making models designed by his 5th-grade students.
As the school’s art teacher, Gebhardt started experimenting with 3D printers, where students now create objects for the chess club as well as complete their class assignments. He sees 3D printing as a way to help students build not only models, but new skills that they’ll use in their education — and, potentially, in a future career.
“It is not enough that students know how to solve rote questions and standardized questions,” says Gebhardt. “Students need to be able to use the information that they learn to be innovative problem solvers and find unique solutions.”
3D printers are getting a new life in school classrooms, moving out of libraries and makerspaces to play a more concrete role in curriculum. The cost of a basic 3D printer can range from about $1,200 to more than $6,000, depending on its size and brand. That’s a price point that can make it difficult for educators to get their hands on these devices.
Some companies, like Skriware, will offer bundled packages so schools don’t just get a printer, but also access to curriculum materials. Skriware’s Classroom+ is $3,500 and includes its Skriware 2 3D printer in addition to the new Destination: Mars online course, which lets students learn how to design and print while also learning about the red planet.
Many schools, like Gebhardt, turn to grants to buy their printers. He also says that filament, the building material used by 3D printers, is priced low enough that he can have each student print a 3D model for less than the cost of a typical art project.
“One individual project for a child may be 25 cents, where an individual painting may be a dollar or two,” he says. “After initial buy-in, the actual operating cost is quite low.”
Lori Stahl-Van Brackle, New York City Department of Education’s (DOE) Instructional Technology Director for Manhattan, knows that the cost of printers can be an impediment to educators. But as a former middle school teacher in Rego Park, Queens, she had one running in her classroom almost all the time.
Still a huge fan of 3D printers, Stahl-Van Brackle likes to see what schools are creating with their own devices.
She’s seen science classes print DNA strands, and physics students build parts for a catapult. One teacher, who actually didn’t like his 3D printer, used it to help his class build a mold to make clips for potato chip bags, which students then produced and tried to sell. Stahl-Van Brackle loved his inventiveness, as this is how objects are actually mass produced in the real world.
“And he didn’t like the printer,” she says laughing.
Stahl-Van Brackle is also very aware, however, that if teachers don’t get the right training, printers can easily end up as another technology contraption gathering dust in a closet.
NYC’s DOE teamed up with MakerBot to offer the company’s STEM certification program to teachers so they can learn how to work with 3D printers and weave them into existing curriculum. While Stahl-Van Brackle says she would never tell a teacher a certification is required, she admits “it’s nice to have.”
To her, the goal is to just get more hands-on creativity into all schools — elementary, middle and especially high school. She knows that there’s a push to get students ready for college, and knows how important testing is, but she also would love to see all students have as many chances as they can to make things and invent.
“The old days of shop should come back,” she says. “We should give kids the opportunity to harness their creativity.”