The new buzzword within the United States’ educational system is STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Over the past several years our educational system has shifted or more pointedly focused on these subjects as perceptions suggests a faltering US effectiveness within the engineering and technology industrial sectors. Hence, many primary and secondary schools are now actively pursuing STEM programs. One way they are doing this is with 3D printers. However, as desktop printing is such a new technology and the “Wow Factor” has yet to wear off these machines, these shiny new technological marvels have yet to be fully integrated within the K-12 system. Consequently, new comprehensive curriculums must be developed and deployed and structuring these programs must be thoroughly thought through as educational dollars must be stretched as far as possible and it is important to get the most bang for the buck.
Although these machines do carry a spectacular “Wow Factor,” the real power of 3D printing within the educational system is not actually printing, just as the real power of the dot-matrix printer was not in printing. What was the real power of the dot matrix printer? Was it the ability to download a picture from a software package and conspicuously place it on the front of an essay? Or, was it the actual thought process and formulated ideas put forth within the essay, as well as the learned techniques and technique application, with which to put forth those ideas? The dot-matrix printer was just the medium. Additionally of value, but secondary, was the “Wow Factor” of bringing something to life with a tangible product…much less “Wow Factor” than a 3D printer, but it was there nonetheless and did serve to help motivate students.
Accordingly, curriculum developers may want to shift the educational paradigm as primary education shifts into second gear. The real power of the 3D printer does not lie in spatial understanding of a given 3D printed object. In other words, 3D printing a gear set so students can grasp how gears interact or how a tetrahedron looks does have value within primary education, but is it a good use of a $1500 machine in secondary education? Especially when these trinkets can be purchased for little money online.
The real power of 3D printing is the amalgamation of STEM. The power lays within the synergistic effects of bringing all of these courses together and focusing them on a tangible problem and producing a tangible solution. The importance is not the magic of making something appear on the 3D printing platform, but the fusion of STEM brought to bear on a problem. It is all of the processes leading up to the very moment the print button is pressed. It’s the means that are important in this case, not the ends.
Do not misinterpret my push, here. Students will be motivated by the ends, by that tangible solution, and I understand that motivation can be a difficult part of education. However, as with a typical desktop printer and essay, as educators, the power of the 3D printer lays with the process. From a student’s motivational point of view, it is the finished product.