From the screen to the hand: getting started with 3D printing in the classroom

By Aaron Vanderwerff & Christine Mytko
Originally published on Autodesk Design Academy.

Why Making?

Looking for ways to engage your students in deep learning? Hoping to hone your ability to help students truly understand what they are learning?

Integrating making into your practice engages students, provides a true context for character development (think persistence), and most importantly, gives students experiences to learn core content and practices more deeply. Making is learner-centered. It is based on Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism (yes, based on Piaget’s constructivism), which says that learners build their understanding more deeply if they create something to share with the world.

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Students created an art robot to connect making, art, and robotics.

This is relevant because new standards and educational trends are pushing for students to share their thinking, not just their answers. Students are also actively learning the practices of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The technology now available to educators allows students of all ages to program robots, build inventions, and design and print 3D models. Although making is by no means limited to high tech devices (at Lighthouse, cardboard and tape are core technologies), these resources have greatly expanded the repertoire that students can use to create their visions.

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Students 3D printed this case for a cane for the visually impaired.

3D design and printing are exciting examples that follow this trend. Too expensive and technical for most schools to use just five years ago, free programs like Tinkercad and cheaper 3D printers have made 3D design accessible to more students and schools.

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How do we get started?

Start small – New tools can be intimidating, and may even sit in the box for months. We recommend digging in with a few students in an after-school (or other informal) setting. This will give you an opportunity to become familiar with the tool and associated workflow, as well as provide a low-pressure environment to test out instructional ideas before scaling up to a larger class or grade level. This group of students will then become your techs (fixing the printer) and your TAs (supporting other students in the regular classroom).

Find a community – Whether it’s a Meetup or an online community, such as the K-12 Fab Labs and Makerspaces Google Group, you and your students will benefit from having a forum for sharing the joys and frustrations of your experience, asking questions, and being inspired by others’ work. Find a local mini Maker Faire and network with other educators and 3D printer enthusiasts.

Introduce Design – Programs like Tinkercad (free and online—therefore useable on Chromebooks and other computers) or 123D apps for iPad let students design their 3D models. Tinkercad has tutorials to familiarize students with the program, which is generally all it takes for them to be comfortable with the basics, but don’t let students be fooled into thinking Tinkercad is only a beginner’s tool. (Check out these designs that Christine’s student made using Tinkercad!)

3D print designed by students.

Learn the Software – Most printer companies use their own software, so follow the instructions for your particular 3D printer. Slicing software takes the 3D model students design and creates a file (often g-code) that will tell your printer how to make your object. If you look inside this file with students, you will see references to coordinates – just like in math class. These coordinates dictate the toolpath, which is where the printer nozzle will move with respect to the build platform.

Know Your Hardware – Finally students get to print out their design. Again, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for how to load the sliced model onto your printer. Printers have a variety of connections (USB, wireless, and SD cards are common), but the general process is the same. As the g-code is loaded into the printer, the machine’s extruders heat up, causing melted plastic to flow in the predefined path on the build plate. Troubleshooting opportunities abound (build plate falls out of level; prints won’t stick to the build plate; extruder gets clogged; filament gets tangled…) You and your techs should be prepared to problem-solve. Know that this frequently involves disassembling and reassembling parts. If you are new to 3D printing, do not despair—it gets easier!

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Technology isn’t perfect, sometimes 3D prints look more like spaghetti than their 3D models.

Consider Filament Options – We have been focusing on consumer-level, FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printers that melt plastic filament and extrude it in layers on a build platform. There are a wide variety of filaments available from many different manufacturers, but for most schools the filament choices basically fall into two categories: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) or Polylactic Acid (PLA). It is worth researching the cost, requirements, and pros and cons of each as you get started working with your printer. This Makezine article is helpful in understanding which filament is right for your project.

How do I bring 3D printing into the classroom? 

Now that you’ve gotten started, how do you open 3D design and printing up to the whole class? Christine recommends giving students a task they can all accomplish quickly, to give them a sense of initial success. Her first project has three simple criteria; the object must: (1) fit within a 50 mm x 50 mm x 50 mm block; (2) contain one shape; and (3) contain one hole. The easiest option students found was an initialed tag that can be attached to a backpack. However, once kids realize how simple Tinkercad is, they often design more complex objects, even for this initial assignment. By keeping it small in the beginning you as the teacher get an idea of the time and energy it takes to print one or multiple models from a given assignment.

Students are often eager to create more complex 3D designs.

Don’t be afraid to let students experiment with designs that won’t print. You might ask them to watch a design video – like this one by Kacie Hultgren (PrettySmallThings designer) about designing for 3D printers. It is worth analyzing and reflecting upon every successful and unsuccessful print. Even when doing more open-ended projects, it can be helpful to give students some guidelines to getting started with an achievable design.

In Aaron’s program, students first used the printer to create difficult-to-manufacture parts for independent projects: a case for electronics; a bracket to hold the motor for a model airplane; connectors to hold cardboard for a reconfigurable maze for robots. Since then, math students have created geometric forms in two dimensions, then extruded them into the third dimension to create a stamp.  An after-school class created a fantasy village.

We want to share an amazing story about how Black Pine Circle students used 3D models and 3D printing to understand the fabric of the world around them. During a visit to the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, seventh grade students were able to use the tomography beamline (one of the X-ray stations) to scan objects such as an eggshell, a butterfly wing, and a Mentos candy. The data was visualized in 3D, and eventually 3D printed at many times its actual size. In doing so, they created educational models that sparked discussion, and used these models to explore structures and drive their scientific experimentation.

So get started – take that printer out of the box, and hand it over to your students as soon as you can!

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3D printing in action.

Do you have more resources and ideas?

●Getting Started

○Join a network of educators!  K12 Fab Labs and Makerspaces

○Follow what other educators are doing with 3D printing

■Christine Mytko’s Tales of a 3D Printer (also on Facebook)

■Urban Reininger’s Projects & Explorations

■Clark Barnett’s


○Christine’s recommended reading/reference list

●Small Projects

○Bubble wands

○Cookie cutters

○Game pieces (checkers / chess – one piece per kid – whole class project! or pieces for their own games)

○Mr. (or Ms.) Potato head parts & much more from Urban Reininger

●CAD programs – All Autodesk software is free for students and educators!


○Autodesk Maya

123D Design suite for iPads

○Inventor for PCs

○Autodesk Fusion for PCs and MAC

Beetle Blocks – Visual code for 3D design


○OpenSCAD – learn to design in 3D and code at the same time!

●Curriculum Resources

City X Project

Autodesk Design Academy

SeeMeEducate from SeeMeCNC

3DU Lesson Plans from 3D Systems

●Model Repositories





○Even Radiolab! (Christine’s post)

Helpful facts to know:

3D printers still take quite a bit of maintenance; they are slow, and while they are less expensive now they are still expensive and they require ongoing purchases of consumable plastic filament. When we talk to others about starting a making program in their schools, 3D printers are generally not the first tool we recommend (those would be lower tech, more flexible tools). And for a school with a limited budget, we wouldn’t use that budget to purchase a printer, though we do recommend writing a grant for one on Donors Choose or from another funder. Finally, there are the environmental implications of creating many small plastic objects (and accompanying waste) without a plan for the re-use of the plastic.


David is the documentarian and professional development coordinator for the Creativity Lab. In 2014, he received a BA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, with focuses on short fiction and screenwriting. In partnering with New Orleans-based independent film company, Asymptote Pictures, his work has been featured in film festivals across the country. He likes his espresso maker, and vegetarian tacos.