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3D printing in the classroom: Here’s what you should consider

3D printers can be fantastic tools when learning about STEM in the classroom. They allow students to create tangible versions of their designs and encourage creative, yet practical thinking. Not to mention that they’re also really fun to work with!

However, as an educator, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about 3D printing. It can seem especially daunting and complicated, seeing as the technology is only just gaining in popularity and public familiarity. In this article, we’ll look at some of the most important things you should know before you buy a 3D printer for your classroom.

How 3D printing actually works

Most people know what 3D printing is, but they can’t actually tell you how it works. Understanding this is important in being able to decide whether both it and its quirks are the right fit for your classroom. It’s actually quite a complicated process, so here’s the quick and easy rundown:

  • Most 3D printers work by melting plastics through a super-hot nozzle which moves around to create shapes in three dimensions. Warning: hot!
  • The printing process isn’t instant. Prints can take anywhere from 30 minutes for a small keychain to 8 hours for excessively large or detailed objects. This makes it extremely difficult to print the work of multiple students.
  • Cheaper 3D printers (< $600) will often work inconsistently or not work at all for you. You may think that you’re getting a good deal, but cheaper printer = cheaper parts and this will create massive problems for you (get ready for repairs).

3D Printers emit fumes that can be toxic

As we mentioned briefly before, almost all common 3D printers work by melting plastic through a nozzle to create a shape in three dimensions. Unfortunately, the process of melting plastic leads to the release of potent fumes and ultra-fine particles (UFPs).

These emissions aren’t any good for you or your students to be breathing in. In fact, the fumes created by the use of certain plastics in 3D printing can be toxic, and the associated UFPs are suspected to have adverse health effects as well.

This is probably the number one thing schools don’t know about 3D printing, but it could also prove to be one of the most dangerous down the track. However, there are things you can do to significantly reduce the impact of these issues if you do choose to invest in a printer.

Firstly, make sure that you look at 3D printers with fully enclosed build chambers. This means that there are no sections of the printer open during printing, leaving the fumes inside until you open the door. Sorry, Ultimaker. Once the print is finished, you can take the printer outside to let out the fumes, or at least control their release.

Additionally, some 3D printers like the UP Mini 2 and the UP Box+ include HEPA filtration systems. Essentially, these devices ‘clean’ the air inside the printer to remove a large amount of the fumes and ultra-fine particles – a cool feature, especially for classrooms. Filters are quite inexpensive and need to be changed only every six months or so.

Cost of equipment VS educational outcome

There’s no denying that keeping up with technology is quite expensive. Reliable 3D printers with good safety features can often cost over $1000 for smaller printers and up to $8000 for larger machines that can create the work of multiple students at once.

As the printing process is extremely slow, unless you are working with a smaller class or have significant time or monetary resources available, a 3D printer just may not be viable. As a teacher, you may end up spending hours watching the printer in order to start the next student’s print job if you can’t afford four printers.

And, of course, this investment of time and money must be compared against the educational return. For engineering classes in high schools things may be a little bit different, but generally, 3D printers are more of a novelty than a learning tool at such a high price point. The concepts that they convey can be taught or investigated using other tools or methods – and for a much less significant cost!

Wrapping it all up

So, while everyone’s telling you that you need a 3D printer for your classroom, you should probably ask yourself if you really do. They’re a lot of work involved in the maintenance of the printer, making sure that fumes are dealt with, and that’s before you even start printing out students’ work.

However, there are some situations where a printer might actually be a great purchase. For example, if your school runs an out-of-school STEM club, then this could be a great way to involve students. Meetings would be irregular, giving teachers lots of time to print students’ work. This could also work in classes where the printers are used for long-term projects, reducing the strain on time (students would finish at different times).

Is a 3D printer right for your school or classroom? It all comes down to your budget and how you plan to use and manage it.

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