3D Printers in Schools: Good Idea or Bad Idea?

3dp1Kim was reading the Facebook page for one of our local tv stations, and they were reporting a local story where some junior and high schools were getting 3D printers for the kids. The printers were quite reasonable at $1600 each, and they were getting about $20k worth of them to spread around the district. I’m not a Facebook kind of guy, but I do have an account that I rarely use. In this situation, I decided to break my Facebook silence and weigh in on the topic.

I’ve got an opinion on this matter for two reasons. First, 3D print is a great way to get kids interested in engineering, design, and manufacturing, which I do believe we (meaning the US in this case) sorely need. Second, I’m an author of sorts, and an engineer who creates. When people steal intellectual property, it’s often people like me who are being stolen from.  Kids are already challenged when it comes to ownership and entitlement issues, and I just thought this was a great opportunity to illustrate what I think are valuable lessons.

My comment on the issue centered around the idea that I thought kids needed to have exposure and access to 3D CAD software before they start playing with 3D printers.  Access to CAD needs to come before access to printers for a couple of reasons. First, that’s the way it happens in real life. You design, you print. Second, if they aren’t making something to print, they are downloading something to print. I’m not saying download => print is not a valid thing to do, it just has very limited educational value, and it helps instill the idea that “creative stuff” (music, books, pictures, 3D CAD models) are things of no value that you shouldn’t bother making for yourself because you can get them for free just by taking them. We’ve already released a generation of students who don’t understand the difference between “yours” and “mine” when it comes to intellectual property. Let’s not perpetuate society failing its children in this way for another generation. If they can design something themselves and print it, it’s far more interesting than just printing something someone else has made.

If this is just about printing downloaded stuff, they’ll get bored with it rapidly.

Design is the real value here, because it opens up your imagination, which is the holy grail when you’re teaching kids that get distracted easily. Linking the physical print to their creative activity really helps send a more complete and more powerful message.

From there the kids have more lessons to learn such as materials, why you can’t make parts that would require starting to print in mid-air, why this isn’t a mass production method, and patience. Hopefully they will also learn that additive building has been available for over 20 years, and there are a number of similar processes that use different energy sources and materials.

Technology on its own just turns into temporary entertainment. Telling the story of how to create something useful and/or beautiful from your own mind is where the real value is for future engineers, designers, and manufacturers.

Updated: March 7, 2014 — 3:38 pm


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  1. Matt,

    Great subject and I’m sure you were wincing when you wrote this expecting much criticism. But I couldn’t agree more with you. As you stated:

    “We’ve already released a generation of students who don’t understand the difference between “yours” and “mine” when it comes to intellectual property. Let’s not perpetuate society failing its children in this way for another generation.”

    I guess the best analogy I can think of was Calculators back when I was in HS. The “Bomar Brain” was introduced in 1971 and it immediately became a big controversy regarding it’s impact on students ability to first learn math before being aided by technology. And “The Brain” was only capable of the 4 basic math operations.


    But in regards to 3D printing it’s even more debilitating to the student since it skips the creative process. Not to say that ALL students will have a spark of creativity… in fact I doubt 3D printers will make Engineers and Designers anymore then making a tape recording of Beatles back in the 60’s made you a musician. Or what about the Xerox copier? If you learned that skill in the 70’s you could grow up someday to work in the “Copy Room”.

    So here’s my only problem with 3D printers in the classroom…. It’s not 3D printers that are hurting the kids it’s the LAZY teachers and administrators who push this technology as a fad in teaching, yet none of them understand it at all. It’s now all about “Edutainment” in the classroom… sure the bright kids will do well no matter what, but many end up learning the wrong lesson. And then they wonder way we rank so low in world in Math and Science knowledge. In my opinion 3D printers in the classroom is like Sesame Street… it’ll send the wrong message to more then the few who will be inspired to develop their own ideas. And those kids are already past the 3D printing wow factor. This is being pushed by those without a creative bone in their body.

  2. Funny,

    After posting my comment I read this…. “Genius Hour”


    Again another effort to get kids to be creative, but if “everyone get’s a trophy” instead of getting tough critics, expect to see a lot of disappointed kids when they run into the real world. Well I guess they could always go down and “Occupy Wall Street” to find purpose.

    1. Bob your comment linking a lack of quality teaching “everyone gets a trophy” to Occupy Wall Street is unjustified. How did you arrive at this conclusion? Or do you just attack those with an alternate political view with this sort of nonsense.
      I will take a guess at your attack on people who make up the Occupy movement (which is dead) – you seem to think that they are ‘hackers’ and ‘pirates’. I can assure you less than 1% of ‘occupiers’ would know how to code, let alone break into any computer systems. As for the pirating yes many of them would be guilty of illegal downloading – but no more than the ‘average’ person.
      IP is an interesting topic and I have views that would not impress many that read this blog. I would also point out that I am a pirate but side with ‘the little guy’ when it comes down to a band/software developer/publisher. A while back I alerted Matt when one of his books appeared on The Pirate Bay.
      So Bob before you have a go at Occupy – THINK!

      1. Thank you Anonymous for validating the point… if you’re so brave to criticize me based on assumptions, why HIDE your name?

        Or is that you again Jon Bonqueer?

  3. Hi, Love your blog, Matt. Interesting comments…there is a free student version of Solid Edge at https://www.plm.automation.siemens.com/en_us/academic/resources/solid-edge/student-download.cfm
    and there is free training for any teacher or student at https://training.allyplm.com/ and also paid content that the teacher can use to teach the students. I agree that we should get kids involved early in CAD. I have my kids doing the tutorials for Solid Edge – they love it.

  4. Boy the day is really loaded with articles about 3D printing… look a Lego’s dilemma!

    So is it ethical do make Lego blocks on a School 3D printer or is that pirating?


    1. The way I look at it, 3D printing legos is going to be far more expensive than buying them. Unless you’re making something you can’t buy, in which case good on you for doing something new.

    2. This really is a dilemma because as I understand it, patent IP is only protected if someone uses it to generate a profit. If you use it individually then there is no issue. This is different from works of art which rely on copyrights instead of patents. Does this mean you not only need a patent on your invention but also a copyright on all of your 3D parts as well???

      1. Ken,

        “patent IP is only protected if someone uses it to generate a profit”

        This is not true… You can NOT use any IP for any personal or
        commercial use or gain.

        “Typically, a party (other than the patentee or licensee of the patentee) that manufactures, imports, uses, sells, or offers for sale patented technology without permission/license from the patentee, during the term of the patent and within the country that issued the patent, is considered to infringe the patent.”


        As “Anonymous” admits above he’s a pirate, and seems to live by his own laws!

        Simply put… even using something you know to be patented is breaking the law.

        And copying Lego Bricks to make your own 3D printed “Wall Street” just so you can sit in your mothers basement and protest is illegal!

  5. I won’t weigh on the philosophical aspects here, but I will mention that ANY STUDENT OF ANY AGE can use Solid Edge completely for FREE.

    There are two editions besides the University Edition for this:

    Free High School Teacher Edition –> http://tinyurl.com/k8aqhpz
    for the teacher to implement and roll out to all students

    Free Student Edition –> http://tinyurl.com/mn2oz6t
    for any student who can’t otherwise gain access to Solid Edge via their school

    and hey, we aren’t biased — if you are a SolidWorks/Inventor user out there reading this and want your children to get exposed to CAD — this is a great option :-)

    Let me also say that I am AMAZED by what High School Students can accomplish. I had the privilege of visiting the Huntsville Center of Technology (a tech branch of the HS here in HSV) last week to see what the students are doing with their GreenPower car. Wow. They are learning all the disciplines (there is a total science to the batteries for example) and how to integrate them. They have a Stratasys high end printer (most HS won’t have this) and do actual production parts for the car on it.

    See http://www.huntsvillecenteroftechnology.org/

  6. Based on comments to the original Facebook post, it looks like the local schools already have CAD and CAM in place. The teacher in the image (with the white vest) is the CAD teacher at this school. This is obviously a good thing, and makes me very jealous. We had one line printer terminal at our school in 1979. That was the extent of computers that I went to school with.

    Do you notice anything else about the class from the picture? They are all guys. Just because we don’t already have enough controversy here, I think forcing girls into engineering is wrong. If they want to do it, great. If they don’t, don’t force them. We don’t have to have a 50/50 distribution. I think we have to provide the opportunity, not the final statistics.

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