[Classroom Spotlight] 6th Graders Design Mars Rovers with 3D Printing

STEAM Students at Richmond Hill Middle School in Richmond Hill, Georgia had the opportunity this year to use the MakerBot SKETCH Classroom 3D printers on a cross-curricular project led by 6th grade teacher, Mary Bowden.

The Mars Rover Project

Rover 1
Rover Render 2

Mary Bowden’s sixth grade classes teamed up with the Math and Science departments to design a robotic exploration rover that would be able to search for signs of life on Mars. Since the students were tasked with creating their own version of a Mars rover, they had to research the components of a real NASA mission, define the purpose of their NASA mission, research the components of an actual rover, and identify the parts of the rover that would be required to complete their mission on Mars.  At the end of the project, they would then present their final prototype to a NASA expert experienced in getting rovers to Mars.

Students learned about soil sciences and the properties of different types of soils and of those on Mars. Students could then determine if their Rovers would need to include a drill if their mission’s purpose was to collect soil samples. This meant they had to then incorporate a design of drill to equip their unique rover with. 

Students also had to think through how they would need to scale down their rover components to print on the MakerBot SKETCH, as well as determining what the life-size dimensions of this rover would be. During this project, many of the students learned that, in real-life, rovers can actually be as big as a car. To correctly scale their components, students had to learn more about ratios and scale factors and how that translates into actual 3D-printed designs.

Using the SKETCH 3D Printers in the Classroom

When it came to 3D printing, the MakerBot SKETCH Classroom printers were super user-friendly for her sixth graders to use and get a strong understanding of the whole process. “It was really easy to import their rover designs that they had created on Tinkercad straight into the MakerBot CloudPrint cloud-based software. They then uploaded their .MakerBot files of their designs onto their USB drives, plugged them into the printers and hit print,” said Mary.

Loading and unloading the printing material was also a simple task for the sixth grade students to follow. “My students having the ability to actually see the printer in person and load the filament into the printer themselves helped them further engage with the set of 3D printing tasks they had to go through. It made them more excited about going through the process of starting off their 3D prints,” she continued.

Student 3 Mars Rover
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Creating Prototypes of their Mars Rover Designs

Rover 2

When going through the process of designing their Mars Rovers, the Richmond Hill students did have to make adjustments as they began the 3D printing process. One of the biggest adjustments that they had to make was if they were going to print the Rover with its intricate parts as one whole print or if they would print their Rover in separate parts to then assemble afterward. 

“My students actually really ended up liking the idea of printing everything disassembled and having to put it together after the prints were done. Doing so, they were able to actually dive into the different features of their rovers and critically think about the different details of their rover, like the tires, the arms, the antennas, and all the other components.” Mary describes that the added layer of complexity further engaged her students because they were able to see how each part printed out on the MakerBot SKETCH printers and see how possible it would be to make adjustments to their designs. 

Another component the 6th grade students had to think about was whether or not to use 3D-printed supports for their more intricate models. 3D-printed supports are removable scaffolding-like structures that print with the 3D model to help prevent any features on the 3D model “drooping”, similar to how the letter “T” would need supports to keep the top portion from drooping. Students had to think critically about how their models would print and if any changes to the model had to be made beforehand to ensure a successful print. Similar to how many 3D printing engineers today have to think about how they’re going to print larger prototypes before sending the files to their 3D printers.

Rover Disassembled

Biggest Takeaways From This Project

“First off, I want to say that I so appreciated the MakerBot website for their tutorials and troubleshooting. I know I learned a lot on how to use the product, and [the MakerBot Support Team] has such awesome videos and quick little tutorials on how to get started.” The tutorials have made the project much easier to manage. “I was like ‘gosh, I’ve never done a 3D printing project on this large a scale before’, but to go in and watch a 2-3 minute tutorial was really helpful for me throughout this project”.

Mary and her students also learned a lot about NASA and what it takes to put a Rover on Mars. Her students appreciated the fact that Mary didn’t know everything going in. “I was also learning with them and going through this whole project together made it all the more engaging to them. They realized ‘Oh, you don’t know all these things’, and so it was a really great opportunity to learn together.”

Rover Prototype

One of the other takeaways was the fact that students were able to take their 3D-printed creations home. The students were extremely excited to see their rover designs printed and brought to life. “I got so many parent reviews saying what a cool project this was for their students.” The ability to take home something they had a direct role in creating really tied the project together. “Without the MakerBot SKETCH printers, I don’t think this project would have been nearly as engaging for them.”

Accessibility to 3D Printing as a Whole

Student 2
Student 3
Student 1

Speaking on how important it is for students to have access to 3D printing, knowing that 3D printing is being further integrated into existing industries and careers, Mary says “You know, I truly think that putting something into their hands, giving them those opportunities and seeing how the real world uses them is so important. We’re trying to make them think about life long careers, and even though this project was based around creating prototypes of a rover, I had students saying “Oh, I could use 3D printing for this item I want to create for my home”, or “Oh, this is broken, I could use this technology to design and print something out to fix this”. 

Mary concluded, “Our students are really thinking about how 3D printing can play a role within their everyday lives and how they can use this technology in the real world. The MakerBot SKETCH 3D printer is really allowing my students to think about their future careers. One of the girls in my class said ‘I never would have thought about STEAM as a career until now.’ This is really opening up windows and doors for our students.”

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