-Extract from UKEdMagazine, March 2014. Article by Martin Burrett.
For too long something has been amiss in schools across the UK. A yearning to be emancipated from tyranny. The struggle against the unrivalled power of a small group of individuals has caused misery and envy for educators for many years. No threat, bribe or persuasion can waiver their resolve. I speak, of course, of the holder of the stock cupboard key.
But their supremacy may soon be coming to an end. For there is a transformative technology just beginning to appear which is set to change education and even society itself. Rapid prototyping, or 3D printing as it has become know, is still in its infancy, but the impact of producing objects that can be customised, or even fully designed by educators or students in the blink of an eye, is breathtaking. In years to come we will be able to create anything – pens, footballs, PE kits, and even school dinners – at the press of a button.
We may not yet be at a stage where we can ask for, “Tea… Earl Grey… Hot,” and see it whirl into being, but the technology has already made inroads into the classroom and 3D printing technology is developing very quickly.
Most 3D printers use spools of thin plastic strands, which are feed into the unit, heated, melted and pushed through a nozzle across a surface that builds up layer-by-layer, where it then cools and hardens. Some experimental 3D printers have used more exotic materials, including food, wax, and even bone for medical use. You can buy a 3D scanner is quickly copy existing objects and render them onto your computer to simply replicate or to use as a starting point for your design.
I first saw a 3D printer at the 2011 BETT Show in London. Over the past three years I have notice visible improvements to the quality and speed of the products printed. On the GoPrint3D stand at this year’s event, I was captivated by the elegance of the printer’s movements as it danced across the uppermost layer of near molten plastic. After just a short time, a plastic miniature hand was build, complete with exquisitely detailed fingerprints and finger nails. Consumer 3D printers are surprisingly inexpensive, at around £1000. Easily in budget of most primary and secondary schools.
This is all very impressive, but what are the practical uses in the classroom? Design and Technology is a logical place to start and there are limitless applications. Designing detailed, unique objects using a computer can take a lot of skill and a great deal of trial and error. Most design skills that individuals already possess are transferable to designing a virtual object. Designing components is just the start and fitting the objects together into working, functioning machines can be still a practical, hands-on activity.
So what is the advantage? Refining ideas is much easier when designing and manufacturing using a 3D printer and standardising a product is as easy as pressing the ‘Go’ button twice.
Artists are already experimenting with 3D printing and the web is awash with images of beautifully designed structures that would be difficult to produce any other way. Traditional sculpture relies on the artist removing material from their medium. Rapid prototyping is the opposite and the machine adds material to an empty space. You can make objects inside a solid outer structure and print fully assembled mechanisms and complex, jointed pieced.
There are lots of practical applications in subjects such as maths. Aside from the mathematical skills needed to design intricate objects, the pedagogical value of seeing mathematical concepts made solid can bring new insights for pupils. Teachers and students could design and print objects which utilise non-Euclidean geometry or fashion architectural wonders that stretch the imagination.
Scientific concepts can be difficult to understand, especially for younger pupils, and visualising ideas is important. 3D printing offers you the opportunity to explain ideas clearly with objects that the children can hold in their hands. Better yet, children can use this technology to demonstrate their understanding by designing models based on their ideas. Imagine exploring aerodynamics by refining a miniature aircraft design, learning about the cardiovascular system by examining a blood capillary that is printed to 100 times it’s real size, or creating a working volcano that can simulate eruptions under different conditions.
At first glance, 3D modelling has little to offer the humanities. But language is a reflection on the world and an object as a stimulus can be very useful. As the technology develops, the ability to have almost any object you wish in your classroom will open up many new possibilities. The feel the texture of the ancient elvish working engaged on ‘the One Ring’ or the visualising the imagine horrific scene of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, the 3D quality and the ability to handle and touch can bring a new understanding to learners and a new way for students to interpret literature.
There is huge advantages to using 3D printing in the special education, where bespoke produced for unique needs is common place. Such customised items, such as easy access computer keyboards, communication screens and sensory items, can be costly from traditional manufacturers, but teachers could design, share, tweak and then print all of these objects.
From creating 3D relief maps of your study site in geography, designing unique instruments in music or creating a hoard of treasures from antiquity, 3D printing is bring a new dimension to classrooms around the world and enriching the education of our young people with a new way of looking at things and a new way to express themselves and show their understanding.