3D Printing in Education: Coping with the Decline of Student Interest in Science

Tan Hoang, 3Dponics Inc.
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Tan Hoang, 3Dponics Inc.

Tan Hoang, 3Dponics Inc.

Science and innovation have always been the key drivers of a country's economic expansion. And while the U.S has historically been a leader in these fields, over the past few years, the lack of student interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) raises concerns about our current education system and our ability to keep up in a competitive, tech-driven world.

According to a recent survey by the Department of Education, only 28% of high-school freshmen declared interest in a STEM-related field, and 57% of them lost interest by the time they graduated.

Among possible solutions to help ignite students’ interest in science is to increase and enhance hands-on learning. And perhaps one of the most appealing ways to do this is to introduce 3D printing into the K-12 classroom.

The importance of hands-on experience

Research comparing student performance on written (theory-based) tests and applied (practice-based) tests has shown how important hands-on experience is to a complete, well-rounded education. The study required students to explain in writing how electrical circuits work and then to demonstrate their knowledge by making and testing a circuit. The results of the study revealeda weak correlation between the paper-based test scores and the applied test scores. In other words, students who excelled in theory were not by definition competent in practice, and vice versa.

This study taught us two very important lessons. First, paper-based test scores are not a reliable predictor of a student's performance in the real world. Second, it is critical to reduce the gap between theory and practice in education.

Imagine how disastrous it would be if a group of civil engineers, who were once outstanding students on paper, discovered fatal flaws in their design of a suspension bridge only after its construction due to their lack of practical experience. By exposing students to hands-on learning styles from the very beginning of their education, we are allowing them to experiment with trial and error, learn from their mistakes and understand the potential gaps between theory and practice so that they may correct errors in a timely manner.

3D printing as the ideal solution

We witnessed an unprecedented growth in 3D-printing technology over the past few years. By bringing 3Dprintinginto the K-12 school system, we can give students the opportunity to develop important skills such as strategic planning, critical thinking, technological problem solving, and iterative design.

Students will learn how to plan a design with a specific purpose in mind, and then to create the design using Computer Aided Software (CAD). Once satisfied with their design, students can proceed to 3D print the prototype and test it out to see if it meets the requirements given by the teacher and fulfils the original intended purpose.

By seeing their designs materialize into physical forms, students will gain an understanding of how to design concrete and working models. As mentioned earlier, this allows them to discover potential errors in their models during the early stages of design and to make the appropriate adjustments to their prototypes.

Furthermore, educators can use 3D printing as a powerful teaching tool, providing students an in-depth understanding of abstract concepts, such as the notion of kinetic or three-dimensional space by demonstrating the theoretical models using physical representations.

How to integrate 3D printing into the curriculum

In the summer of 2014, we launched 3Dponics, the world’s first 3D-printable hydroponics system, with the goal of giving people all over the world the tools to grow their own food in the comfort of their own home and using recyclable materials.

Unexpectedly, some of the strongest reactions we received were from educators—educators of all kinds, from kindergarten and high-school technology teachers to STEM coordinators and curriculum developers. They were all excited to have a fun, hands-on way to get their kids involved with 3D printing.

So what makes 3Dponics so special? We soon realized that 3Dponics is actually the perfect way to introduce students to 3D printing, as it touches on a variety of existing subjects, from biology and environmental science to engineering and product design.

Teachers can take the original 3Dponics system and create custom activities around it. These can be as simple as gathering empty plastic bottles and caring for plants or as complex as designing new parts to turn the hydroponics system into an aquaponicsfarm. The lessons are invaluable.

The next steps…

Of course, the integration of 3D printing into the educational system most certainly won’t be an easy process. It will require a tremendous amount of effort from curriculum developers, governments, teachers and other decision makers. But effective planning can ensure a smooth introduction of 3D printing into the classroom. We propose several steps of going about it.

The first step would be to develop a sound curriculum, which makes 3D design and 3D printing an essential part of the teaching program. In other words, 3D printing should not be considered an "extra" of a lesson; rather, it must be tied in with the theory. It also means that students must be evaluated on their work in 3D design and 3D printing, not just on the theory portion.

This leads to the second step: a change in the current student evaluation standards. We already know that standardized tests are a double-edged sword. They ensure that students graduating from any school in any region of the country will have the same basic level of academic knowledge. However, the requirements of these tests leave little room for innovation in teaching methods.

The third and perhaps most important step is to provide appropriate training to teachers. In many cases, elementary school teachers are not comfortable teaching applied math and science. This barrier can be overcome if teachers are equipped with the right teaching tools and the right mindset. By realizing that 3D printing can work with theory-based teaching to facilitate student understanding of complex concepts, teachers will be more willing and able to integrate the technology into their lesson plan.

With all of that said, the bottom line is this: Once we reach the point where K-12 students across the country are skilful at 3D design and printing, the benefits of this technology will open upa new era of scientific advancement.

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