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Literature Review

3D Printers in the Classroom

Catie Lemley

Bowling Green State University



All good teachers continue to think about what new innovations and teaching styles they

can implement in their classrooms. As students continue to be more and more engaged in

technology as they are a part of the digital age, teachers must continue to learn and explore what

devices they are able to utilize in order to create a learning experience that is relevant and

engaging. One of the newer technologies that helps teachers to do this is 3D printers. This

technology might not immediately seem like something that would directly benefit education.

However, as teachers are trying to produce students who are ready for the 21st century, this

might be the perfect device to allow students to dig deeper into the content and prepare them for

any industry that they would like to have a career in one day.


Even though 3D printers have become increasingly popular over the last decade, they

have actually been around much longer than that. The first 3D printer was created in 1984 as the

inkjet printer was adapted to print with materials, rather than ink. The process of printing these

tangible items from a digital design was invented by Charles Hull. This method of manufacturing

was called stereolithography, but is now commonly known as 3D printing. Hull first came up

with the idea as he worked for a company and found much frustration in the fact that small

plastic parts that were needed in order to create new prototypes could take up to two months to

create and receive. His idea was that a three dimensional object could be created by piling up

thousands of small strands of plastic and then shaping it with light. He worked for years on this

idea until he had a system “where light was shone into a vat of photopolymer – a material which

changes from liquid to plastic-like solid when light shines on it – and traces the shape of one

level of the object” (Hickey, 2014). This process is continued until the object is complete

(Hickey, 2014)

In 1986, Hull created the company 3D Systems in order to start creating and selling his

stereolithography machines. As he assumed, the printer was popular for building prototypes for

industries such as automobile companies and the aerospace sector. However, Hull did not expect

that his printer would be such a hit in the medical field as well (Hickey, 2014). Currently, 3D

printing is used in the medical field for things such as “tissue and organ fabrication; creating

prosthetics, implants, and anatomical models; and pharmaceutical research concerning drug

discovery, delivery, and dosage forms” (Ventola, 2014).

Many people agree that part of the goal of K-12 education is to prepare students for any

career path that they might choose to follow. As teachers are asked to continually incorporate

more relevant and real-life applications to their teaching, it is no wonder that teachers have

gravitated to using more technology. It is not enough anymore for teachers to purely teach the

content. Unless they are demonstrating how the knowledge will be useful later in life, many

students will disengage from the lesson (Hancock, 2010). This is exactly why 3D printing has

made its way into education.

Research Findings

There are many different theories on learning, but one person who greatly influenced the

educational field with his theories of how we learn is Piaget. Piaget’s ideas considered that

children learn by their own personal exploration of the world. He believed that “[children] were

not limited to receiving knowledge from parents or teachers; they actively construct their own

knowledge” (Wood, Smith & Daurice, n.d.). Through these ideas, constuctionism was later

coined by Professor Seymour Papert from MIT. This is the idea that students learn by actually

creating their own artifacts. This can easily be confused with Piaget’s constructivism theory. The

main difference is that Piaget’s theory helped children to move through the four major stages to

eventually using abstract thoughts, where Papert’s focus is on concrete work (eSchoolNews,


Applying constructionism in a classroom allows for students to practice tinkering. This

requires students to use a trial and error method until they find the right path instead of giving

students ‘correct way’ and then asking them to replicate it. By doing this, students are able to

find their own way to the solution and it could be different than other students. Since students all

learn in different ways, it makes sense that they would be allowed to solve problems in the way

that makes the most sense to them. If they understand the method, they are more likely to be able

to generalize it and apply it somewhere else (eSchoolNews, n.d.).

This also allows teachers and students to focus more on the context rather than the

content. When content is the main focus of the lesson, the objective seems to be the transfer

knowledge in order to achieve a checkmark of learned items on achievement tests. However, the

objective of the lesson should be to engage students in a realistic, relevant task in order to

achieve something with a lasting value. This happens when the main focus of the lesson is

context (eSchoolNews, n.d.).

By changing the focus of the lesson, teachers will demonstrate that it is not about “what

you know, but [about] what you can do with what you know” (US Department of Education,

n.d.). For students to be successful in the 21st century, they need to be able to gather and make

sense of information in order to solve difficult problems. These skills are built into STEM

(science, technology, engineering, math) education and even President Obama saw a need to

prioritize STEM education for every child (US Department of Education, n.d.). Constructionism

addresses STEM skills that are considered very important to being a productive adult in the 21st

century. By using 3D printing within the classroom, teachers are allowing students to become

creators and allowing them to “interact physically with what they had envisioned “ (The Case for

3D Printing, 2015) which leads to the achieving the following math common core standards.


The following includes the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice.

1) Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

2) Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
3) Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
4) Model with mathematics.
5) Use appropriate tools strategically.
6) Attend to precision.
7) Look for and make use of structure.
8) Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Stratasys points out in their article ‘The 3D Printing Revolution in Education’ that

“virtually all 3D projects call for accuracy in measurements (Standard 2). Modeling with

mathematics (Standard 4) is also commonplace, as is the strategic use of appropriate tools

(Standard 5). Precision (Standard 6) is important when structures are made of parts that

have to fit together. The use of structure in 3D designs relates quite well to Standard 7.

By challenging themselves in designing objects for the 3D printer, students will certainly

participate in problem-solving and persevering until the object is made to their

satisfaction (Standard 1)”.

This means that almost all projects using a 3D printer will include six of the eight standards for

mathematical practices. The other two (standards 3 and 8) are able to be applied through

collaboration and presentations within the projects (eSchoolNews, n.d.)

Besides meeting many of the standards for mathematical practices, 3D printers also

create excitement and engagement with students who might not otherwise be enthusiastic about

math. It also aides students in conceptualizing and visualizing concepts that would otherwise be

abstract and difficult for them to understand. By incorporating 3D printers into lessons, teachers

are not only making the learning more relevant and thought provoking, but they are preparing

students for a future in many industries. Using this technology allows students to interact with

processes that are demonstrated in modern industry. There is no better way to prepare students

for future careers than providing them with opportunities to experience operations that are

actually being used in many fields (Kristiel, 2014).

Challenges and Limitations

As with any current technology, 3D printing comes with a cost. Even though there have

been developments that allow for more cost-effective 3D printers that schools are more able to

have access to, there are many schools that have other technology priorities (for example

becoming 1:1). 3D printers are not a one time fee as eventually, you will run out of supplies to

print with and need access to more in order to continue using the printer. Lastly, technology is

does not stand still and someday, this printer will be outdated and will need to be replaced with a

newer and more efficient model (Murray, 2016).

If the price is something that can be handled, there is also the challenge of preparing

educators to work with 3D printers. Just like any other new device in the classroom, teachers

should be trained to make sure they are using it in a way that maximizes its potential instead of

using it as a replacement for something they already had access to. Teachers can read the

directions and figure out how to use the machine, but they need to understand and feel

comfortable with the teaching practices to implement the device into the curriculum that needs to

be achieved (Murray, 2016).


This type of learning will also be new to students. Depending on what teaching styles the

students are used to, implementing discovery learning can be very intimidating to students. Many

students struggle with the concept of trial and error as they are afraid of failure. Especially in

math, many students already have anxiety about the content and asking them to perform a task

with the teacher as a guide and they are the leader of their learning can produce some uneasiness

at first. Students with low self-confidence will need to learn to trust their abilities as a thinker

and stretch their mind to produce new ideas. All things that students are capable of, but might

need reassurance along the way as they move into a new style of learning (for example tinkering)

(Kristiel, 2014).


The possibilities of how to use a 3D printer within the classroom are limitless. As stated

in the article “The Importance of 3D Printing in Education”,

“3D printing, which has impacted so many industries, is only beginning to be appreciated

as an aid to education. 3D printing adds new emphasis to the proven theory that hands-on

learning is more easily grasped and retained than pencil-and-paper classroom lectures. It

can benefit virtually any field of study by allowing students to better grasp concepts of

mathematics, geography, history, and design by personal interaction with their own real-

world creations” (Murray, 2016).

In language arts, they can be used to create a piece that the students then have to write about or

learn how to use and then write an informational pamphlet or instructional manual. In science,

students could create replicas of a heart in order to better see the intricate inner workings of the

organ. 3D printing could easily be used in a history class as you could create a scale model of a

place that students would otherwise not be able to visit or envision. Students who have a hard

time understanding math could create boxes with different dimensions to help them formulate

how to find surface area and volume of any prism. These are only a few of the possibilities for

implementing a 3D printer in educational settings (Murray, 2016).

Not only will it create a more engaging and stimulating educational experience for

students, but it also brings in a level of confidence that the students might not otherwise have

with the given content. Students today are of a generation that has been immersed in a virtual

world. Many students are fairly confident in their ability to use technology. By using 3D printing

in content areas where they may have a low self-confidence, the content will build off of their

computer confidence and allow students to have a more positive overall experience (Loy, 2014).

This may lead students to feeling excitement in areas that they used to lack those feelings. The

United States as a whole needs to work towards achieving this excitement in STEM areas as we

need to produce students who are willing to take on careers in those fields so that we can

continue to be competitive on a global scale.



eSchoolNews. (n.d.). The 3D Pringint Revolution in Education: A New Approach to Learning in

the 21st Century. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from


Hancock, D. (2015, November 20). The Alberta Teachers’ Association. Retrieved June 01, 2017,



Hickey, S. (2014, June 22). Chuck Hull: the father of 3D printing who shaped technology.

Retrieved May 31, 2017, from


Kristiel. (2014, March 19). How 3D Printing in Education Improves Learning. Retrieved June

10, 2017, from

Loy, J. (2014). ELearning and eMaking: 3D Printing Blurring the Digital and the

Physical.Education Sciences,4(1), 108-121. doi:10.3390/educsci4010108

Murray, J. (2016, October 08). The Importance of 3D Printing in Education. Retrieved June 11,

2017, from


The Case for 3D Printing at Your School. (2015, March). Retrieved June 3, 2017, from


US Department of Education. (n.d.). Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for

Global Leadership. Retrieved June 9, 2017, from


Ventola, C. L. (2014, October). Medical Applications for 3D Printing: Current and Projected

Uses. Retrieved June 01, 2017, from

Wood, K. C., Smith, H., & Grossniklaus, D. (n.d.). Piaget's Stages. Retrieved June 11, 2017,


Grant Application


Attached Papers:

Since this was submitted by email, there was no confirmation page, but here is a screenshot of

the email that was sent in order to submit my grant application and the reply.