How to Teach an Intro to 3D Printing Class

How to Teach an Intro to 3D Printing Class to Students // When you add a 3D printer to your makerspace, it's good to offer students an orientation to what they are and how to use them. This is what I cover in our orientation class.

I am by no means a 3D printing expert.  But I do have three 3D printers in my library makerspace (and one in my previous space).  And I have a lot of students who are very interested in learning more about 3D printing.  Some students have built their own 3D printers from kits and love to come hang out and tell me about their latest projects.  Other students have no CAD (computer aided design) experience but are eager to start building. In order to help all of these students better utilize and access our 3D printers, I created a short, Intro to 3D printing session that I teach afterschool every quarter.  It’s essentially an orientation to how 3D printing works, how to create a design and how to get it ready to print.

How to Teach an Intro to 3D Printing Class to Students

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Introducing the concepts

The basics of how a 3D printer works can be confusing.  Many students think that they just need to send a file and they’ll have their 3D printed widget in a few minutes, like printing a report.  They don’t realize that it usually takes hours. Part of teaching an Intro to 3D Printing session is explaining the basics at the appropriate level for your students.  How a printer heats up filament, builds a model layer by layer, how each layer cools and attaches to the previous one. Talk about different kinds of 3D printers and different uses they have (prototyping, biology, house building, pancakes and chocolate!)

I usually like to have a 3D printer running so I can explain the process as students watch it as well.  Sometimes I start up the print before class so that students can see what progress looks like. I’ll often also start a print during class so that I can explain how we send a file to the printer and talk a little bit about slicers, which are programs that prepare a 3D file for printing.

Infill model
Infill model

Teaching the Vocabulary

There’s all kinds of vocabulary terms associated with 3D printing, and it can be confusing if you don’t know what they mean.  I save partial prints and make demonstration prints so that students can actually see what these words mean and look like.

These are the terms I make displays for:

There’s also other terms that are good to point out on the printer itself, such as nozzle, print bed, etc.

Programs for Design

There are many, many different types of 3D modeling programs out there, ranging from simple drag-and-drop shapes to complex CAD programs.  When I teach this introductory session, I start with a few basic programs so my students don’t feel overwhelmed. Once they hit a point where they’re finding the limitations of those programs, that’s where we move into the complex ones.

Tinkercad

This is by far my favorite 3D modeling program and the one that I personally use the most.  No matter where my students are at, this is what I start them with. It’s browser-based, so it works on any system or device.  It’s free, though you do have to create a login, and you have to get parent permission if you’re under 13.

Morphi

This iPad app allows you to manipulate different shapes into your creations.  I’ve found that it doesn’t have quite the precise control that Tinkercad does, but my students have used it to put together some amazing creations.  You have to buy the paid version ($4.99) to download files for print.

Oculus Medium

Virtual Reality allows for a different kind of 3D design experience.  While Tinkercad, Morphi and other CAD apps are generally geared towards technical projects., Medium allows you to sculpt with virtual clay.  We have a ceramics and sculpture class that has used this program to create some amazing sculptures, which you can download from the program and 3D print.  You can also import 3D files, allowing you to bring in scans of humans, objects, or creations made in other programs. They can be tricky to print sometimes, though, depending on the level of detail your students use.

Fusion 360

This one comes from Autodesk.  It’s really complicated and has a high learning curve.  To be honest, I have no idea how to use it. But my students who are really into 3D design love it.  This is a good one to make available for students who are ready to go to the next level.

What printers we use

  • DaVinci XYZ Mini – Not my favorite but it’s cheap and gets the job done.  If you don’t have much of a budget, it can be a great entry level printer. (I linked to the newer version.  Mine is the orange one)
  • Makerbot Replicator+ – I had a Makerbot at Stewart. It was a great printer and didn’t have too many problems.
  • Dremel 3D45 – Bought this one based off of Nick Provenzano’s recommendations – my students and I love it. It allows for four different types of filament (PLA, ECO-ABS, PETG and nylon) has a heated bed and has some pretty precise controls in its slicer.

Library 3D printer policies

After students come to this orientation, they’re allowed to print items on the 3D printer.  They can either bring in their designs on a flash drive or e-mail the .stl file to me. I have them come in and walk them through the process of starting the print, then they can come back later to pick it up.  Here’s some of the common questions I get about this process:

Do you charge students for 3D prints?

I have yet to do this.  I calculated out the cost of a few projects once by looking at the meters of filament used (you can get this number in the slicing program) and the cost per meter of the filament we purchased.  Even a larger print came out to a only few dollars. For the sizes of most of my students projects, it maybe costs $1. I can work the cost of filament into my supply budget. For those who don’t have a supply budget that can cover filament, consider asking PTA to help cover costs, or use a fundraiser to help.

Do you have rules about what students are allowed to print?  

Students can print original designs or someone else’s design that they have tweaked and modified.  Their prints have to be able to finish during the school day (approximately 8 hours). They can use someone else’s design without tweaking if it is part of a larger project they’re working on and it makes more sense than recreating the wheel.

What have students used the printer for?

The variety is wonderful.  I had a freshman design a baseball relief to use as part of an art project for our fundraiser gala.  There were two 6th graders who designed figurines with swords and other props for their language arts book diorama projects.  I had a senior download parts for a vacuum that he was building in his engineering class. One 6th grader made a 3D printed molecule model as a gift for her older brother.

Do you have a 3D printer in your makerspace?  How do you teach students the basic concepts?