#MakerEd in the Classroom: Exploring #3DPrinting FAQs & Resources

This week I will answer some of the most common questions about 3D printing I get asked as a Maker Educator by administrators and classroom teachers.  Last summer, I published a similar guide for the Home #Makerspace!

3D Printing FAQ


What Is 3D Printing?

In the last few years, 3D printing has take the world by storm.  3D printing is a additive rapid prototyping tool – meaning it builds an object quickly and cheaply using computer controls. The cheapest (and most common) type of 3D printer is a fused deposition modeling printer.  FSM 3D printers combine CNC (computer numerical control) with extruded plastic (think hot glue from a glue gun) to build, layer upon layer, an object in real-time and real space.  FSM 3D printers can print in a variety of plastics, including polylactic acid (PLA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and plastic infused with metals or wood.  They materials can be combined in interesting ways and used for multiple purposes.  3D printers can create machine parts, molds, models, sculptures, trinkets, gadgets and more.


Why Should I Get Explore 3D Printing In My Classroom?

3D printing offers students a way to interact, design, problem-solve and collaborate with their world in real, authentic ways which respect their voice and character.  For the teacher, 3D printing offers an approachable tool to increase opportunities for project-based learning, fostering creativity and practicing design-based thinking.  3D printing has been successfully integrated across subjects and grade levels.  Language teachers use 3D prints to create interlocking puzzles with verb conjugations, art teachers create impossible sculptures, math teachers create visual representations of formulas, engineers create rockets.


How Is This Connected to the Standards?

MakerEd doesn’t tie into any one set of standards, but that doesn’t mean it won’t address them.  Strong, creative curriculum design by the teacher integrates the student’s work into the curriculum and scope and sequence.  I address many of these concerns and my approach in my article PBL Through a Maker’s Lens.

How Much Money Does It Take To Get Started?

3D Printers widely vary in cost, size and quality.  Finding the best solution for your situation will take some research and thinking.  Some questions to ask yourself:  How will this machine be used?  How many kids will have access to it?  What size projects can I support?  Who will maintain this printer? Once you have these answers, certain projects and tools will lend themselves to your situation.  Do you have a limited budget and need a reliable workhorse?  Try a smaller printer from a reputable company.  Do you have a talented, experienced classroom teacher/maker, no budget and a can-do attitude?  Cheap knock-off printers or printer kits can provide a entry point for under $500.  Need fifty printers and support?  There’s a printer for you too!

Which 3D Printer Should I Buy for My School?

I usually recommend three purchases for schools and organizations starting out.  First, a high-quality, large build printer.  The Ultimaker 2 and Lulzbot Taz are great printers from great companies.  I have seen them perform consistently “in the wild” in all sorts of environments.  Makerbot’s Replicator line also performs well, although their customer service is less than stellar.  All three have a usual price point of about $2500.   All three companies have smaller, cheaper printers available at lower price points.

What Software Do I Use?  What Does It Cost?

3D printer work via CNC – computer numerical control.  Essentially, the printer executes a program which tells the extruder to travel to a particular spot in space and spit out a small amount of plastic.  The program then tells the extruder to travel to a different spot and spit out more plastic.  The printer will do this over and over again, until your object is built.  This program is written in G-Code and must be generated by a software program called a slicer.  Most printers are designed to work with a specific software, such as Cura or Makerbot Print.

Simplify3D helps educators and designers really hunker down and tweak their printers to achieve peak performance.  While free software, such as Makerbot Print, Cura or Repetier-Host can work well, Simplify3D has many more features (such as increasing the top layers of a model or adjusting for under- or over-extrusion issues) that push the work to the next level.  Plus, if you expand your fleet of printers, Simplify3D is compatible with nearly all printers on the market, giving the educator (or organization) great flexibility as you grow.  $150 for one license, but educational and bulk discounts are available.

What is Filament?

3D printers use thermoplastics, plastics which change their shape when exposed to heat, to create objects.  The plastic comes as thin rod, spun around a spool, and is deposited, layer by layer, onto the print bed.  The plastic is a consumable.  The plastic is bought by mass, usually 2kg and 1kg sizes.  The plastic comes in two diameters: 3mm and 1.75mm.   Match your diameter to your printer!  Lastly, the plastic comes in two types, PLA or ABS.  PLA is made from sugar, can be recycled, doesn’t smell during operation, is less usable for mechanical tasks and tends to droop on a hot day.  ABS is petroleum based, has an unpleasant odor and works great for mechanical parts.  I use PLA exclusively, as I want to avoid sensory issues for affected students.

How Do I Make Objects to 3D Print?

Users must first create a digital representation of an object before printing it.  3D modeling programs come in a few different flavors with different purposes.

CAD (Computer-Aided Design) programs, such as Autodesk’s Fusion 360 or OnShape, are full engineering suites which can design 3D machines, parts, buildings, etc.  Onshape is an especially attractive free, easy-to-learn and collaboration-facilitating option.

TinkerCAD is a free, browser-based, limited capability CAD modeler streamlined for 3D printers that uses a unique algebraic additive and subtractive process to generate parts.

OpenSCAD approaches parametric modeling from a computer science perspective, as your digital objects are generated exclusively through computer code.

Sketchup: Make is a free 3D modeler, but traditionally works best for architectural models, not 3D printing.

Blender is a free, open source modeler with an integrated game engine that generates models suitable for animation.  Many users have successfully printed Blender models, but I don’t have experience in this tool chain.  Autodesk’s Maya program is another modeler in this category.

Most printing software use two types of files, .STL (or stereo-lithography) or .OBJ (OBJ geometry), to generate prints.  The CAD programs above all export and import .STL files natively.  SketchUp can, but it takes some further work.  Blender supports .STL and .OBJ.


How Can My Students Share Files?

Thingiverse has a large and growing library of interesting objects ready to print.  I’ve found printing complex files, such as this dragon, great learning exercises to tune my printers, but they have limited educational scope for young people.  Most educators place some sort of limit in the classroom (no Thingiverse files unless remixed, for example) in place to encourage original creations.

How Should I Manage Prints?

Educators manage their printer demands differently.  Some create a variety of processes via Google Docs or Forms which allow students to submit models to be printed, while others have dedicated workstations.


If you are interested in wireless printing, their are a few options.  MatterControl Touch from MatterHackers is a wireless tablet printer controller, while Astroprint and Octoprint are Web-based interfaces which can integrate with RaspberryPi devices and allow for Web-based printing.  A number of educators in low-volume, high-support settings have successfully integrated these devices into their workflow.

Thank you for your continued support.

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