This month’s feature article has been written by Rich Lehrer, and has been replicated with his permission. 

So You’re a Teacher with a 3D Printer… Now What?

So, you’ve purchased a 3D printer for your school and you are on your way. Yet, although you’ve successfully supplied your school with all the key chains, name tags, and Yoda heads they will ever need, and you have begun to incorporate 3D printing into some of your existing units, something still feels like it is missing. At Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts, we have taken some exciting steps toward leveraging students’ interest in 3D printing to unlock their potential to become empowered problem solvers while realizing some of the possibilities that this exciting technology offers.
In July of 2014, we pioneered an initiative that mobilizes individuals throughout our school to create opportunities for our students to engage in authentic and meaningful problem solving. In the Brookwood 3D Design Problem Bank, adults at our school (faculty, maintenance workers, parents, etc.) submit problems in need of a 3D designed solution to a project website where they are categorized and publicly posted. Students from different grades and settings are given the chance to choose problems that resonate with them, and an iterative relationship is created where the child and adult both play a role in defining the problem, brainstorming first steps, and generating gradually improved iterations.

A solution born from the Problem Bank

In what is truly a win/win/win situation, “problem posters” receive solutions to their design needs, students engage deeply in the engineering process, and everyone connected to our school is provided with a tangible example of the power of the design cycle to transform problems into growth opportunities and students into contributing and engaged community members.

Although we feel that we are at the beginning of this journey, we have begun to receive interest from other schools and organizations looking to set up their own Problem Banks. Our recommendations include guidelines such as:

  • Teach empathy— the more authentic the problem, the more important it is for the student designer to understand the needs of the “problem poster”
  • Educate your community— a greater understanding of the types of problems 3D printing can solve leads to better growth opportunities for students
  • Grow “problem finders”— encouraging adults to be willing to both look for and pass on authentic problems in need of a solution can be challenging but is rewarding for all
  • Start by “getting real”— it is challenging for middle school and elementary students to conceptualize 3D solutions to problems. Prototyping in conventional materials (cardboard, duct tape, modeling clay, etc.) is a critical first step
  • Many iterations = more effective designs— the time needed to 3D print iterations can be a barrier to repeated passes through the design cycle. Requiring students to create and first print “slices” or “footprints” of their designs allows them to confirm the appropriateness of their solutions before committing time, energy, and materials to a full print
  • Mobilize student leaders— enlisting the help of older students to educate adults and classmates, manage design relationships, teach 3D designing, and showcase solutions helps navigate the logistical challenges of the Problem Bank while providing powerful leadership opportunities


Out of the School and into the World

As this initiative has become more widely embraced by the different constituents in our school, we have started to find ways to use this work to connect our students to their world beyond the school walls. When my colleague, 6th grade science teacher Annie Johnson, proposed using the Problem Bank as a vehicle to connect our students to other individuals and organizations on Boston’s North Shore, I knew we were into some exciting new territory.

Last year, we piloted a program called “D-Zign Girlz” through which we created a design collaboration between a small group of our sixth grade girls and a local seniors’ affordable housing residence in Beverly, MA, called “Harborlight House.” This pilot program was transformative for the students who engaged in some deep empathy work as they endeavored to get to know and understand the lives of a group of seniors. As they shared the ever-improving iterations of their designs to garner feedback they developed deep relationships and friendship with the residents.

The depth of the cross-generational experiences and the quality of the students’ final designs made it clear that there were many profound learning experiences to be had through this work. This year, we have broadened the project to include all of our sixth grade students, the bulk of the sixth grade team, and several new seniors’ residences.

Personal Challenges and the Genesis of Our Work

Brookwood’s journey to involve our students in “hyper authentic” 3D designing, making, and problem solving began in 2013 when, in spite of the fact that we had no 3D printer, we became one of the first schools to turn the creation of a 3D printed prosthetic into an educational project.


Throughout that school year, I worked alongside a group of my 8th grade students to track down a partner with a printer and produce one of the original 3D devices, the Robohand, for my son Max. When our first printer arrived, three months after Max’s successful use of the student-built prosthetic, we were already so deeply involved in creating real world problem solving experiences for our students that to have gone back to printing trinkets would have seemed like a squandering of the opportunities afforded by this technology.

In retrospect, it is clear that becoming so deeply involved in this very personal application of 3D printing allowed us to break through a kind of “authenticity barrier” that not only directly led to the creation of the Problem Bank concept but also thrust me and our school into the world of 3D printed assistive devices. I now lead the Enable Community Foundation’s Education initiative, helping to provide schools and students with authentic uses for their printers through the creation of 3D printable prosthetics while striving to create for schools the same set of authentic opportunities that first inspired our students.


A Global Generation of Empowered Designers

In short, I believe we have truly broken some important ground with this initiative. Students who work on Problem Bank postings begin to see problems more as chances to develop their critical thinking and design skills while adults at our school see students as capable partners in the process of making our school a better place. 3D printing offers an incredibly tangible example of the power of young people to create authentic solutions and I personally believe that every organization with a 3D printer should have an associated Problem Bank. I actually envision a global network of young people becoming collaborative designers and problems finders who share and revel in each others’ problems, challenges, and designs. As we continue to configure Brookwood’s Problem Bank for adoption by other schools (by writing curriculum, providing guidelines for setting up a school Problem Bank, supporting with professional development, etc.) we are also beginning to consider the potential for the Problem Bank to move beyond 3D printing. Once students see themselves as invested problem solvers with the capacity to effect change in their lives and school, in their community, and in the world, the potential seems endless.

Making for Good

The educational benefits of involving students in the “Making for Good” movement are undeniable. But the potential for a generation of makers to move beyond seeing themselves as “tinkerers” and to begin to see themselves as empowered local and global change makers… now this has the makings of a transformative movement. I have seen first hand that a community comprised of members who are prepared to see problems and challenges as growth and empowerment opportunities for young people is a community that grows agents of positive change. Our school’s journey through the use of this emerging technology provides one of an infinite number of models for this work – please contact me if you are interested in knowing more or you have other work to share. and







Contemporary skills and technology and the looming industries of the futures are increasingly necessitating the implementation of educational techniques that allow students to not only absorb course content but apply it and take ownership of what they have learned, while adapting and developing collaborative methods of implementation.

Project Based Learning (or PBL) has been identified as one method that facilitates the above. While earlier TIAB – Focus on Education Newsletters have discussed the merits of PBL somewhat, here is a quick recap:

PBL is a student-centered, inquiry-based instructional model that engages students to resolve an abstract problem or project. This method teaches students identify gaps in their knowledge, conduct research, and apply their learning to develop solutions and present their findings (Barrows, 1996).  In addition to the actual implementation of knowledge, through collaboration and inquiry, students can learn to cultivate problem solving (Norman & Schmidt, 1992), metacognitive skills (Gijbels et al., 2005), a general engagement in learning (Dochy et al., 2003), and can develop an intrinsic motivation for more.

But where to start?

It seems often that despite PBL’s potential benefits, the fact that it doesn’t come with a ready and identifiable ‘roadmap’ can lead this approach to be pushed aside or overlooked for something a little more definitive or structured.

In their article ‘Six Steps to Design, Implement and Assess’, Vincent R. Regareo PhD and Renee Lyons offer six distinct steps to help educators do just that: design and implement a PBL approach to a given class or project.  Below is breakdown of those steps.  Please note that we have purposefully shied away from specifically targeting any 3D printing applications.  Project Base Learning may be ideally suited to 3D printing projects, but its application is far more wide reaching.



The first two steps require the educator to identify the results they would like the implementation a project based approach will yield.


As the educator, what are you hoping to derive from implementing this approach?  While it can certainly involve the direct resolution of a problem (or in this case a ‘challenge’), often the outcome can be deeper than the resolution of any specific goal and/or project.  PBL outcomes also fit well with the promotion of process oriented behaviors such as collaboration, research, and problem solving. It can be used to direct students towards the acquisition and appraisal of content or conceptual knowledge, and/or develop disciplinary habits such as writing or communication.

Educators are encouraged to develop formative and summative assessments to measure student learning. Group contracts, self/peer-evaluation forms, learning reflections, writing samples, and rubrics are potential PBL assessments.


This is where the educator devises ‘the problem’, or ‘challenge’.

Identification of an issue or project and breaking down related course content is part of this step.  Thought should also be given to parameters, including timelines and ensuring that the project has an identifiable goal. The key is identifying a project for students that will elicit thought, discussion, research and learning to resolve the project and meet the learning outcomes. Scenarios should be motivating, interesting, and generate good discussion.


Once the educator has identified the desired outcomes and goal of the project, steps 3 – 5 are directed to student involvement.


Once the educator has defined both the desired outcomes and the scenario, it should be introduced the students.

Allow time for your students to engage with an abbreviated version of the scenario and take time to introduce expectations, rubrics, and timelines. In other words, set the parameters. If material considerations are important, the students must be made aware of what those considerations are in order to stay within the guidelines.


This is the ‘biggest’ step because it encompasses the bulk of the actual work.  At this step, students begin brainstorming sessions designed to learn;

• what they know about the problem (background knowledge)
• what they need to learn more about (topics to research)
• where they need to look to find data (databases, interviews, etc.)
• what tests can be employed in order to determine what information and research is useful and ultimately test their own solution.

Students should be encouraged to decide upon group roles and assign responsibility for researching the necessary topics.

If this is the first time your students have been exposed to the project-based learning approach, it is possible they will need assistance. Anecdotal information about your own experiences and research may prove useful: without good research questions, the process can be unguided or far too specific.

It is important to remember (and to remind students) that research questions and hypotheses can change after students find information that may disconfirm their initial beliefs or understanding. This is normal and in many ways desirable.


After researching, the students create solutions that synthesize their research and learning. The format of the summative assessment is completely up to you. Students find resources to develop background knowledge that informs their understanding, and then they collaboratively present their findings, including one or more viable solutions, as research posters to the class.

It is important to note that steps 4 and 5 are not necessarily meant to be definitive or exclusive.  In fact, many of the steps are typically cyclical with the results of one step often times leading to revisions in a previous step to account for new data. 

Dr.  Regareo provides this example:

you might teach an economics course and develop a scenario about crowded campus sidewalks. After the groups have read the scenario, they develop initial hypotheses about why the sidewalks are crowded and how to solve the problem. If one group believes they are crowded because they are too narrow and the solution is widening the sidewalks, their subsequent research on the economic and environmental impacts might inform them that sidewalk widening isn’t feasible. They should jump back to step four, discuss another hypothesis, and begin a different research path.


The final assessment of the PBL project is tied closely to what the educator identified as the desired outcome in step one. If step five is used by the students to assess their solution, step six is to assess the project in its entirety. Here is where the educator evaluates the groups’ products and performances.

Use rubrics to determine whether students have clearly communicated the problem, background, research methods, solutions (feasible and research-based), and resources, and to decide whether all group members participated meaningfully. You should consider having your students fill out reflections about their learning (including what they’ve learned about the content and the research process) every day, and at the conclusion of the process.







Much has been made of the benefits of integrating 3D printing technology into the classroom. Some of the most commonly identified benefits include:


  1. ABSTRACT CONCEPTS CAN BE MADE MORE TANGIBLE — e.g. visualizing 3-dimentional geometric objects and modelling chemical molecules.

  2. DEVELOPMENT OF SPACIAL INTELLIGENCE — mentally generating, rotating, and transforming objects in 3 dimensions.


    3D printed map of the US indicating population density per state


  3. CROSS CURRICULAR APPLICATIONS — e.g. examining medieval siege weapons (physics/history) or designing and marketing different kinds of products (art/design/economics).

  4. ENHANCED UNDERSTANDING – It enables authentic exploration of objects not readily available to schools e.g. ancient structures and fossils.

  5. STIMULATION OF IMAGINATION/CREATIVITY – 3D printing provides an avenue for students’ imagination, creativity, and independent thinking, providing many opportunities for self-directed projects and truly original design.

  6. STIMULATES PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS – It sets the foundation for creative life: it’ll help to create a generation of makers and problem solvers rather than a generation of mere consumers.

  7. FOSTERS COLLABORATIVE APPROACH TO PROBLEM SOLVING – finding the best solution to a given problem often requires the pooled resources and input of a number of students.



With these benefits in mind, it is not a surprise that a growing number of schools have either introduced, or are looking to introduce, 3D printing technology to their classrooms.

Introducing the technology and making use of it has at times proved problematic and has progressively given rise to two broad approaches of how best to make use of the technology. For our purposes, these approaches will be identified as:


  • ILLUSTRATIVE – essentially a lesson plan with a predesigned and sometimes printed model

  • PROJECT BASED – sometimes also known as ‘problem based’, is essentially a lesson planned around the resolution of a project or problem and does not have a pre-conceived model

Both approaches have value, but differ greatly in their application and sometimes usefulness.



Educators using the Illustrative approach typically have access to a 3D printer and have either the ability to design the component they wish, or have found a useful print-ready design online.

Illustrative use of 3D printing technology has a fair amount of value. It can sometimes be likened to ‘Show and Tell’, where a student is encouraged to bring in an item of interest and the circulate it around the class while giving a brief description of the item and why they brought it.

Of the seven benefits listed above, illustrative use of 3D printing is strong in the first 2 and with a carefully crafted lesson plan can also have cross-curricular application, enhance understanding and stimulate imagination and/or creativity.

Beyond the pedagogical value of prints listed above, illustrative use of 3D prints also offer the following benefits:

  • Extensive availability (and growing) number of printable files

  • Lesson specific print – the print is available and pertinent to the lesson at hand

  • Cost savings – the cost of printing an item is typically much less expensive than sourcing through a vendor



A Project (sometimes called ‘Problem’) Based educational approach that is in most ways more comprehensive and is focused on engaging students, fostering and relying on their own investigation and analysis to foster a resolution. Students are often in positions of having to investigate and learn about subjects beyond the immediate scope of the project, engage in trial and error, devise parameters and experiments, and so forth…



Properly applied, this approach yields most if not all the benefits identified above and has the additional potential to also foster skills that go well beyond the classroom:

  • Investigation on the part of the students can lead to a more wholistic awareness of the problem or project

  • Communication and debating skills as students advance and advocate ideas on process or resolution

  • Leadership skills among some students as efforts are made to galvanize and motivate each other.

While the project-based learning approach offers a number of benefits, it’s greatest drawback is efficiency, or the amount of time it takes for a project to resolve versus the amount of information being gained. Similarly, it requires the educator to invest more time preparing and working with the students in order to ensure that the project does not stray and that certain key lessons are applied.  When it comes to application of this approach to 3D printing, there are far less resources available here than there are pre-designed and packaged prints.

The R3DP Challenge Circle has recognized the benefits of project-based learning and its application to 3D printing.  In rolling out the Challenge Circle, it has provided educators with projects or problems that take advantage of the various features offered by 3D printing technology.  The goal is glean from the experiences of educators processes that can help others more efficiently and consistently integrate this approach into the schools.


If you haven’t heard about Revolution 3D Printer’s Challenge Circle, please take a moment to check it out HERE!







3D printing technology is dogged by the same implementation problems as many other new technologies when it comes to classroom use.

Revolution 3D Printers deals with a great number of schools and educators across North America, and we have discovered that while some educators have exceled at creating an environment that creates guidelines for their students to refine and apply their creativity, a great many more demonstrate the value of 3D printing in the creation of aesthetic components like key chains and pencil holders, but fall well short of realizing the technology’s full potential.   We have heard of educators working with students on robotics, and in some cases the creation of prosthetic limbs, but we have heard others say that the 3D printer they have acquired is collecting dust on a shelf.

It is the combination of these truly inspiring stories and the perceived need among educators that has prompted R3DP to devise a two step initiative we hope will help teachers address the issue of more fully integrating 3D printing technology
into their classrooms.

The first step is called the Challenge Circle.

The Challenge Circle is designed as a fun, project centered and open competition where grade appropriate ‘real-world’ challenges will be issued to elementary, middle and secondary schools across Canada and the United States. These Challenges will not be specific to industry and R3DP is committed to making them as relatable as possible to the students, so that they can immediately understand the usefulness of the ‘challenge’ they are attempting to address.

Educators taking point on the Challenge for their school will be encouraged to work with a group of students to frame the challenge, research the need and how best to respond to it, design the response, print it if possible but submit the response to R3DP in an acceptable (most likely .STL) format so that we can print it using the parameters set by the submitting team.   Since the Challenge Circle IS a competition, a panel of independent judges will assess the submissions and determine a winner for each grade-group category.  While there are prizes – including printable trophies! – the focus of the Challenge Circle is clearly not on the prize but rather the fun experience of responding to the Challenge itself.

Registration deadline is December 31st, 2017. 

Registration is free, so if you haven’t registered yet, click HERE for more detailed information and how to register!

The second step of the R3DP initiative is called the Future Formers Forum.

The Future Former’s Forum will make use information gained through the Challenge Circle and the submissions received.  This compilation of information will be analyzed, compiled and made available openly for educators to review so that they can see some of the common and more successful practices used during the Challenge Circle exercise in order to help them determine ‘best-practices’ that they can then integrate into their schools and programs.   The Forum will also provide a platform for constructive discourse across North America by educators so that they can continue to share and build on those processes and ideas they feel work most effectively for their students.

R3DP feels that by providing both the opportunity to take part in the Challenge Circle, and the subsequent provision of information and platform for discussion, we can help inspire educators to ‘take the next step’ when it comes to realizing the potential 3D printing represents for their schools and the future of industry!