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3D printers have been the absolute rage in education and in maker spaces for a few years now.  While the printer itself is a magical and fascinating piece of science and technology, the price tag makes it imperative that we use the printers to engage students in activities that will help them grow more creative, adept at solving problems, and skilled at applying knowledge across the curriculum. In order to have a justifiable reason to pay $500, $900, $2000, or even more for a 3D printer, there needs to be a higher purpose, laser-focused on student learning. The following are just a few ideas that might stimulate your own, better plans to get kids engaged in design thinking and applying content knowledge as they work with design teams to create original 3D models.

  • All Together Now. Split class into teams who will design and print separate components of a single project. For example, teams might be producing the doors, roof, window, interior walls, or exterior walls of a model house. They might create components of a small toy, such as a car or action figure. The emphasis here is on effective communication between groups and precise calculations, as poorly planned or executed parts will not fit. This is very similar to actual manufacturing today, where components of the same object are often made on opposite sides of the globe.

    Not my favorite idea!!

  • A Better Mousetrap. Have students design a simple and effective humane mousetrap. Students will need to apply knowledge of biology and simple physics in order to lure, trap, and keep their quarry until it is relocated to a new home (Pro tip: Probably not a good idea to test by letting live mice loose in the classroom.)
  • Baby Shark Tank. Student teams design a simple, easily reproducible and customizable object to sell for a class fundraiser or to raise money for a charitable cause. Teams will pitch their idea to a committee of teachers, volunteers, or other students. Those chosen as best will be produced and sold for the designated cause. In addition to the technology and design skills being developed, through the planning and marketing of their idea, students will build math, speech, and writing skills.
  • Base-ic Math. Every math teacher has a set of base-10 blocks somewhere in their room. In this challenging activity, have students create blocks to represent different math systems, such as base-4, base-25, etc. This is a great way to really reinforce student understanding of a challenging math concept.
  • Even Better. Find an existing design and improve it. There are countless sites online where students can find and download free 3D designs. Have them use an existing design, such as a pencil holder, a drinking cup, or plastic toy, and work with their team to make it more practical, stronger, more aesthetically appealing, or just plain cooler. Daniel Pink’s chapter on Design in A Whole New Mind might be a good text to accompany this activity.
  • Now We’re Cookin’. Teams will design or re-engineer a utensil to perform a specific kitchen task. For example, students could create a stopper to keep opened canned soft drinks from losing their fizziness. They could create a chip bowl scoop that lets dining guests get chips without using their hands or without the frustration of using tongs (which just destroy the chips, am I right?). They could create a pepper corer that protects skin from jalapeño juice. Students could begin by interviewing parents, grandparents, or even professional cooks and asking what tasks frustrated them. They will get to practice effective communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
  • All Geared Up. Students will work together to create a machine that using no more than 4 gears to produce the highest gear ratio they can. In other words, turning 1 full turn of a gear produces as many turns as they can design of a final gear. This is the principle that makes one crank of a bicycle pedal spin  the back wheel several times. They could also try to turn their work into a useful object, such as an efficient fan, “motorized” toy, etc. This is a relatively easy to grasp challenge but has a lot of practical knowledge of simple machines and physics involved.

Hopefully, these are helpful as starting points for student design and will inspire you or your students to bigger and better applications. If you have ideas you would want to share, please include them in the comments, and I will put them into the post.