Saturday, December 15, 2012

3D Printing – Shop Class for the 21st Century

3D printer in action

It may seem unexpected, but in Junior and Senior High School, my favorite subject was shop class!  Building things, learning how tools work, and gaining a lot of knowledge about how devices actually work was not only engaging, but resulted in a few lamps, bowls, and other items that I still proudly own some 40 years later.  However, thanks to regulation, safety, and cost, many districts have basically eliminated shop class.

So what does that have to do with 3D printing?  More than you might imagine.

The biggest consistency between shop class and 3D printing is the notion that there is a great deal of learning that comes from actually making a physical object.  Holding something that you made and seeing how it actually works or fits the purpose intended, how it might be improved, and how it interacts with the other elements of the design provides a number of lessons that are hard to get without a physical manifestation of the problem.  And with 3D printing, the ability to compare your work with others to see how efficiently manufacturing or “printing” is done is a great learning experience.

One of the biggest problems in shop class was safety.  While I never saw fingers removed, there were accidents with belt sanders and lathes that resulted in blood, but no permanent disfigurement.  3D printing doesn’t have the safety issues associated with power tools.  This is a critical consideration in today’s highly litigious world.

If you are as old as I am, you remember that boys went to shop class, and the girls went to home economics.  That’s not going to work in a Title IX world.  3D printing is great because the design and manufacture of whatever you are making can easily appeal to both sexes.  There is no “girl” or “boy” centric nature to the use of this technology as a means of teaching students about the design and manufacture of different items.

Of course, there are still a few issues that will need solutions if we are to use 3D printing as the incredible teaching tool that it can be in today’s primary educational institutions.  While the price of the printers themselves are dropping dramatically and are now within the budget reach of most schools, the cost of supplies can be substantial.  This can be an issue for cash strapped schools.  In fact the supplies cost makes “re-doing” a project cost prohibitive.  There is also the issue of finding teachers that have enough training and familiarity with the software and hardware used for 3D printing.  This is a very new technology.

My sense is that this new learning solution may come into schools in the guise of an after-school “club” or similar endeavor.  In this way we can start the use in a highly managed and better supervised setting.  Yet, no matter how it starts, I expect that 3D printing will truly create numerous new (or resurrected) curriculum opportunities.

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