Initially, my answer was yes. Why not? It’s new technology. People are excited about it. There are seemingly endless possibilities with them. You design it, and it prints. But as more schools adopt 3D printing into their curriculum, I notice that they all run into similar challenges: usefulness and engagement. So now my answer has changed to a “Yes…but…”
The problem? If you are not teaching computer design, then the printer is essentially a knick-knack machine. Students need the software and skill set to produce quality designs that wont keep failing. Without some direction, students will waste filament with defective prints.
When we got our demo in the office we were so excited. We plugged it in, and immediately went to Thingiverse to print a bunch of stuff from their catalog. That was fun, but the novelty quickly wore out. We were spending 12+ hours on printing sub-par iPhone cases and pencil holders. Now if I were a parent and saw that the school had a 3D printer, I would be very excited. However, if the school was not providing the classes needed for the students to actually thrive in 3D printing, I would feel as if the school wasted their funding.
3D printing is without a doubt a huge step forward. I encourage schools to adopt 3D printing. But I can assure you that the students will begin to feel discouraged if they are unable to produce anything of real quality on their own. With that being said, CAD classes, 3D printing clubs, and open access to web-based CAD sites are crucial to unlocking the student potential with 3D printing.
***I should note that I thought about writing this several months ago when I visited Austin’s Thinkery (Children’s Museum, great place). They had a MakerBot 3D printer and we were invited to take a look to see if we could assist with the new product placement. Well–it turns out that the Museum really wasn’t using it. They didn’t have it set up in a dedicated room with computers loaded with CAD software. They literally didn’t know what to do with it. That’s my take home point. Get a game plan with the school. Talk about boosting STEM performance and legitimate engagement and interest from the students. It will happen…so long as their are mechanisms in place to help them understand the basics of 3D printing.