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Cowan Road Middle School

3D Printing in Middle School

“I have students who don’t do any kind of work at all, but they’ll do 3D printing. It’s engaging enough that they actually want to complete assignments and show them off. They love it.”
– Amber Smith, Cowan Road Middle School

3D Printing in Middle School

3d printed robot

The CRMS robot project with 3D printed feet designed by the students.

cell phone holder

Another cell phone holder designed and 3D printed by a CRMS student.

For students at Cowan Road Middle School (CRMS) in Griffin, Georgia, a rural suburb of Atlanta, access to innovation has been e exception, not the rule. When STEM teacher and mechanical engineer Amber Smith introduced her students to 3D printing that changed. In partnership with Georgia Tech’s GoSTEM program, Cowan Road Middle School added a 3D printer and associated lesson plans to their school.

“The demographic of the school is over 90% low income,” Smith said. “They aren’t used to this type of exposure, and may not ever get it otherwise.”

Access to technology is not the only problem Smith faces in helping her students envision a better future. Gang activity, difficult home lives and transient situations are all things her students overcome on a regular basis.

“We have a lot of kids who are getting held back. They aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and they’re not learning. Some of them are 15 going on 16 in middle school,” Smith added.

Building a Bright Future

Realizing her students were reluctant to learn and complete assignments, Smith took a different approach and introduced the students to 3D printing.

With cutting-edge technology at their fingertips, Smith’s students are more focused, designing and printing useful, tangible objects that make them feel proud of their work. Being able to hold what they create, like cell phone cases and key chains, gives the students something they can show off to family, friends and teachers.

The more opportunities the students have to design and use the 3D printer, the more they engage in engineering projects. As part of Smith’s curriculum, students design and engineer feet for a robot. Thanks to 3D printing, students can test their hypotheses and figure out what will work best.

Once a semester, students also present projects to their classmates and demonstrate real-world applications for 3D printing. The in-depth research helps the students get a glimpse into the many industries and careers that utilize the technology.

“3D printing opens up a new world to them,” Smith said. “It helps them realize there are other opportunities available to them outside a local factory or fast food restaurant.”

Her students are so interested in their classroom activities that some have done additional career research outside of the required classroom assignments.

“One of my students told me she now wants to be a biomedical engineer,” Smith said. “I used the opportunity to help her learn what steps she would need to take before high school or college to have a career like that.”

Without the 3D printer in her classroom, Smith doubts her student would have shown interest in discovering an occupation like that.

Past Failures Promote Success

Smith doesn’t only place value on when students design and print their projects correctly. Failure is an integral part of the learning process. Because she has used 3D printing technology in her curriculum for years, she knows when students make calculation errors that will result in an unusable product—but that doesn’t stop her from printing their projects.

She sees students hold their cell phones up to the screen to determine the size of their phone case design, not realizing they were zoomed in or zoomed out.

“I print their projects anyway, so they can learn they approached it the wrong way,” Smith said. “We have a collection of good examples and bad examples in the front of the class.”

By hanging onto failed designs, students have become more careful and intentional over the years. They are mindful of avoiding the same mistakes past students have made.

“I have students who don’t do any kind of work at all, but they’ll do 3D printing. It’s engaging enough that they actually want to complete assignments and show them off,” Smith said. “They love it.”

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