7 Life Skills You Can Teach with a 3D Printer

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Learning traditional subjects with 3D printing teaches students practical lessons, like modeling in 3D design software, but it also helps kids develop crucial life skills.

As Randy Asher, the Brooklyn Technical High School principal, says, “It’s not about teaching the tool, but about using the tool to teach.”

Brooklyn Tech, the largest high school for STEM subjects in the United States, incorporated six MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printers into its curriculum in 2012. Now the school has over 20.

Asher knows that students with access to 3D printing learn how to create a 3D model, how to orient a print, and how to level the build plate. He knows this hands-on approach helps them gain a fuller, lasting grasp of science, technology, engineering, and math concepts.

He also knows that the skills a student needs to achieve success in school, work, and life go beyond the classroom, and that these skills can be gained through the use of 3D printing in the curriculum. Here’s our roundup of the top seven:

1. There are many ways to learn.
Students can learn about history, for example, from a book or a documentary, but a 3D printer transforms this topic into a tactile experience. Students can interact with 3D printed models in real time, stimulating their imagination and deepening their understanding.

Teacher Heather Calabro of Mid-Pacific Institute of Hawaii showcased this when she asked her ninth graders to pretend they were a person involved in World War II and had them design an artifact related to that historical figure. The artifacts came together to form what Calabro calls a “biographical timeline” that gave both students and visitors a different understanding of the past.

2. Think critically to solve problems.
Identifying pain points and then iterating until you find a working solution is a process taught across schools and disciplines. At the all-boys Browning School in New York, students use 3D printing to learn engineering concepts and design basics.

Jeremy Sambuca, the former director of academic technology at Browning, says:

We’re in a society where winning and being perfect is going to get you into a good college. And with engineering, those concepts are very difficult because your product is not always going to come out perfect. Allowing the boys to troubleshoot their way through it is making them better problem-solvers.

Hands-on practice in real time helps students become invested not just in learning the design process but in making it a habit that stretches beyond class assignments.

3. Resilience builds confidence. And confidence is important to succeed.
Going through multiple iterations of a design allows kids to fail early and often. Sambuca says that using 3D printers to learn the design process is “making [the students] more resilient. So that they can build confidence in themselves knowing that, hey, it’s OK to fail.”

3D printing helps students to see failure as an opportunity to persist and succeed. Empowered to control a project themselves, students necessarily form a sense of leadership, ownership, and pride. Check out how Browning uses MakerBot to empower their students.

4. Competition can be healthy.
Eighth graders at A. MacArthur Barr Middle School in Nanuet, NY, use 3D printing as part of their yearly CO2 drag race, led by technology teacher Vinny Garrison. Students create lightweight race cars, learning the principles of engineering and design — and the principle of healthy competition. They use their 3D printers to design faster moving wheels.

It’s a project the kids look forward to all year, and one they remember, says Garrison.
Check out how 3D printing gets kids across the finish line.

5. Collaboration is necessary.
Brooklyn Technical High School’s civil engineering club designed a hydroelectric dam that harvests kinetic energy from flowing water with a 3D printed turbine, then converts that energy into electricity. To accomplish this smoothly and successfully, they distributed tasks such as project leadership, design, and photography according to each student’s strengths.

6. Communicate clearly.
North Carolina fifth grade teacher Kelly Hines says her students learned communication skills just by having a 3D printer in their classroom, because they had to explain the printer to curious classroom visitors.

7. Have empathy for others.
The 3D printer also unearthed empathy and social awareness, Hines told teacher and author Vicki Davis. When her students saw the Robohand and other prosthetics, Hines says, they saw their MakerBot Replicator as a tool for becoming more aware of the needs of others, and learning how they could help.

Any lesson plan will teach math and science concepts. But when students have access to 3D printers, they can pick up skills they will use on the job and in life.

To teach your students life skills with 3D printing, try starting here.