3D printing is awesome. The once empty print bed coated with a thin veneer of hairspray or glue suddenly becomes our imagination physically realized. Over the years, the process of 3D printing has become increasingly affordable for schools, and design programs have become more accessible for students and teachers alike. 3D printers slowly are becoming ubiquitous in school libraries and Makerspaces.

With that said, I need to get something off my chest: we should be working to get students excited about 3D modeling, not 3D printing. I know. I know. It is a subtle argument rooted in semantics. But hear me out: 3D printing is something that a machine does; 3D modeling is where the human magic happens.

Imagine a student writing a beautiful poem, carefully choosing each word to convey a specific feeling. And at the end of that complex writing process sending the poem to the laser jet printer. We would never refer to the journey of poem’s creation as “document printing.” It would rob the process of the human decisions and the creative struggle that naturally come with the creation of a poem.

Machines print. Humans imagine, design, and create.

3D printing is something that a machine does; 3D modeling is where the human magic happens. – Nicholas Zefeldt

The moment that you begin to make 3D models, not prints, the final artifacts of your student projects, you begin to reap some additional benefits as well.

Easier Entry Point!

It doesn’t cost anything to get students creating 3D models. If you already have a computer at your disposal, you can create a free account on Tinkercad (or Blender for older students) and be modeling almost instantly. No 3D printer required. Want to show off your students’ amazing work? Have them insert screenshots of their model from different angles into a document, and have them write about the creative decisions they made in its creation. Or, have them give a “video tour” of the model using screen recording software. Don’t wait for the funding and delivery of a printer to begin this powerful work!

It’s Faster!

As someone who used to teach 3D modeling to a school full of elementary students, I would have hours and hours of printing ahead of me the moment that a class project was completed. When the printer was jammed, the print queue only got longer. The anxiety to get projects printed before Open House was real. By changing student artifacts from printed objects to three-dimensional digital models, educators don’t have to feel obligated to print every object that students create. Printing can be saved for those special moments when a model truly is worthy of the time and materials required to print it.

Focus on Curriculum!

Once we get over the hump of learning how to model in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) environment, the focus of every modeling activity transitions to the application of academic concepts. The moment that students begin to model an object is the moment that they are forced to think about geometric shapes, angles, measurement, and the object’s intended purpose. In an amazing unit of study about the Titanic, the class learned about how the catastrophe of the Titanic was partially due to the type of bolts used in the ship’s construction. Students modeled both the bolts that were used and the bolts that should have been used. The unit was not about printing the bolts, but rather about developing a deep understanding of how the ship was built. In fact, only one set of bolts from the whole class was printed—but everyone had the opportunity to engage in the deep thinking and learning involved in the modeling.

I love 3D printing. The fact that we can rapidly create objects from our imagination blows my mind. But what I really love is 3D modeling. The moment that students are asked to apply what they have learned in class by creating a model from scratch is the moment that assignments stop feeling like “work.”

By focusing on 3D modeling, the emphasis is placed on the human side of the design process—the creativity, the problem solving, and the application of related concepts. That 3D printer sure looks cool—but the real magic hides in the creation of 3D models.

Nick Zefeldt is the Instructional Technology Coordinator at the Contra Costa County Office of Education. He can be reached at @NZefeldt. Check out his blog at http://www.joyfulclassroomcollective.com/.



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