What is the problem?
3D printing looks and sounds really cool. It instantly gets people’s attention no matter what age group. It also takes a long time, is prone to error, is not an intuitive process, and the learning curve for 3-d modeling is very steep. What one can actually make on a 3D printer is often far less cool than the idea of what a 3D printer does. Making a fully realized plastic thing out of tiny layers is amazing. Making a little bit of plastic that doesn’t look like anything isn’t necessarily as cool.
Students would often dream big, then become frustrated at being unable to make the shapes they envisioned. Even when using Tinkercad, the simplest free modeling program we could find, it was hard for our middle school students to design 3D models. Precise sizing and movement was difficult, even with snapping to grid measurements. They had lots of issues with placing things in the wrong planes of height/depth. There were some students who could master the program, but spent so long modeling they ran out of time to print. Bugs, glitches, and failed prints finally torpedoed many students’ hopes.
How do we fix it?
Start Simple. The most successfully printed object was a small, and mostly flat, necklace pendant. It did not take long to design (2 hours) or print (5 mins). It looks exactly on the computer as it would printed. When the print did inevitably mess up, we could start again without much lost time. It was a simple project with many routes for expansion, which could be explored in further projects. It was practical -it could be worn, and be a source of constant pride for the wearer. He was even able to stay late one day, and printed copies for friends and teachers.