3D Printing & Science Education


As a Science teacher I have been hearing about 3D printing over the past few years. I decided I’d investigate 3D printing and introduce it into my Science Faculty. In this post I’ll discuss how I chose the faculty printer and where we decided to install it. Future posts will go into how we are using it, as well as developing a long term vision as to how this technology can be used in the science laboratory and other classrooms.

3D Printers are getting more commonplace in peoples homes as well as schools. Technically when we talk about 3D printing we are really referring to additive printing- there alternative ways to 3D print, for example CNC Routing involves removing material, e.g. wood, to create a product. The 3D printing in this article is referring to the use of various pastics that are melted (like toothpaste) to create a solid plastic block once set.

The media often portray 3D printing as a miracle technology. Everyone in their own homes will click a button and before you know it you will be presented with the desired object. In some ways, 3D printing has been made to sound like the replicators from Star Trek. This, however, does not reflect reality and potentially can hold back 3D Printing as users are disappointed as they cannot create what they have in their mind. Actually this is very similar to some people’s experiences with AR and VR.

Choosing a printer

The reality of 3D printing tech in 2017 is that the quality of the 3D printing experience depends on the quality of the printer, how accurately the printer has been set up and the quality of the the 3D prints that have been inputed. Prints also take a long time to print- some can take days. There is also a need for someone to have an understanding of what is going on inside the printer, as the machine will clog from time to time and need maintenance.

One big advantage of 3D printing is that it does not (yet) have the same business model as 2D printing. 2D printers are typically sold incredibly cheap. The replacement ink, however, is the costly part. With 3D printers the biggest cost is the outlay for the printer itself. Plastic filament is very cheap. Which means that, in a school, the biggest cost will be for the 3D printer itself. This means the purchase will typically come out of a capital expenditure budget.

There are very cheap printers available. In fact, I would recommend buying a kit to build one from scratch. This is because, in doing so, you will develop an understanding of the mechanics involved in 3D printing and so when you get the faculty 3D printer you will be better placed to know its limitations and strengths. Plus you’ll be more confident with carrying out maintenance tasks.

I bought a so-called Reprap clone, the Anet A8, from a store (Gearbest) in China. The cost was around NZ$250 / US$160 / £125. If you were teaching students how a 3D printer works, then this would be a very effective way of training them. The only concerns I would have would be that the printer has a number of hazards that mean I would never let it run unsupervised in a school environment.

The Anet A8. A cheap, self built 3D Printer.

Having built the A8, I then investigated other printers. As I am using the printer in a scienec faculty, my goals for the use are the following:

  • Creation of resources that currently are expensive- e.g. model organs, Molymod kits etc.
  • Students creating resources as part of a lesson sequence

I am not using it to teach the mechanics of 3D printing, although some students and staff may choose to go further in that direction. This means that I could get a machine that is very easy to use without much input from the user. Almost plug-in-and-play.

I settled on the Ultimaker 2+ Extended. Ultimaker along with Makerbot are two companies that have been involved with 3D printing from the very beginning. Their printers are high quality and have been used for many years. They have large user bases, so getting support from the community is possible. The Ultimaker was the best option for me. Originally I intended on getting the Ultimaker 3, which has dual extruders so could print in two different colours or materials [extruders are the nozzles through which the molten plastic is produced]. However, I was advised that the 2+ would be more effective in a school environment as it has a faster print time and initially students and staff would not be printing multi-coloured objects. The savings meant I could purchase more filament.


The Ultimaker 2+. The extended model allows longer prints.

When 3D printing it is important to work out how you are initally going to print. The way 3D printing works is you take a 3D model and export it into a slicer. The slicer is a program that works out how to print the objectin the most efficient way using your specific 3D printer.

You can find pre-made designs on the web, e.g. on Thingiverse. However, if you want to create your own designs, you will need a 3D modelling program. Many schools use Sketchup, which is what our students will use if they want to create their own objects. One issue with printing is ensuring that the 3D object can be printed. That sounds weird, surely if you can see the object on the screen it should print? 3D design can lead to false, unreal images. Think Escher pictures and you’ll get the idea. So there also need to be checks on the so-called watertightness of the design. If it’s watertight, it should print.

This means that there are other programs that could be considered for printing. Rhinoceros is a very effective program, but it is not free. Likewise Solidworks– which is even more expensive. Autodesk has a lot of different programs, e.g. Fusion 360 which is free for students and hobbyists.

The slicer program you use can also vary. Ultimaker produces its own slicer, Cura, which is very easy to use. It calculates the motion of the extruder and advises how long the print will take and how much plastic filament is needed. Cura can be used with any 3D printer, not just Ultimaker. If you want to spend money on a slicer, then Simply3D has a good reputation [I haven’t used it].

Where to put it?

The location the printer will be kept in is more complicated than you might expect. Lets start by looking at the cost and seeing how this will affect the decision.

The Ultimaker 2+ extended costs NZ$5060  / £2200  / US$3000. This is a lot of money for a school in one hit. However, if you factor in use over time it becomes very cost effective- if the printer is being used regularly. If it is hidden away and only used a few times a year then it becomes a white elephant.

There is the argument that it is not a good idea to place an object that valuable in an area where students are. There is too much risk that the printer will be damaged. The recommendation then is to lock the printer in a secure area. I have heard of one school that has created a reprographics area where the 2D and 3D printing takes place. There is a 2D and 3D printing technician that ensures the printing is completed.

This is not a good model to follow. Students need to see the printing happening. It’s a fascinating process and can also stimulate ideas. Hiding the machines also distances the printer from the staff. If something is not effectively in-your-face it’ll be much easier to forget or miss opportunites for using it. It’ll also lead to a culture of staff not needing to know the how and why behind the printing. It’s like the mess we have today with schools having had a few generations through school not being taught how to program only how to interact with applications themselves. We need to remove the mystical side of technology.

So my advice is to do what we have done and place the printer in a visible space (our ILE) between the two laboratories. This has encouraged a lot of discussion, viewing and excitement by the students and they have not interfered with it. It’s the same argument that has been used for creating green spaces, for putting fishtanks in classrooms and generally making student spaces attractive. If you show that you trust the students they are more likely to treat the spaces better. We hope the same will occur with the printer in the ILE.

Of course this does not mean throwing all caution to the wind. We still have security alarms (to prevent burglary) and we are going to be installing 24/7 cameras in the space so that if damage were to occur, we would be able to identify the culprit.

What next?

Once the printer is installed, very quickly students and staff start coming up with ideas to print. I am experimenting with the types of objects that can be printed. At the moment the use is very much creating resources that normally we would have paid someone else for. I have printed an animal cell, a chloroplast and a scale model of the moon. What we now need to do to develop how the printer can augment science lessons. That is a very exciting proposition and one where I will be sharing ideas over the coming months.





  1. Thanks for letting me use the printer to make the 3D maps. I think this technology will be a huge part of teaching Geography or any subject that requires spatial awareness and understanding of patterns and variation


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