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steam education 3d printing sm

How 3D printing fuels S.T.E.M. education.

aaron pearson
Aaron Pearson March 23, 2020
March 23, 2020

Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) education has been a focus of development worldwide in recent years. Building upon conventional wisdom about STEM education, new research is inspiring teachers to add an artistic dimension to their math-and-science-based curricula. As little as one visit to a museum can yield “significant and measurable” changes in students, according to a study conducted by the University of Arkansas. The research went on to show students exposed to cultural institutions had overall higher levels of engagement with their studies, better critical thinking skills, more attention to details, and more empathy than their peers.

steam education 3d printing sm

The link between art and cognitive abilities has been observed outside the classroom as well. Several studies show a direct correlation between artistic hobbies and success in scientific fields at the most elite levels. According to a study conducted by Michigan State University, Nobel Prize-winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely to have an artistic hobby than the general scientific population. The study concludes: “there exist functional connections between scientific talent and arts, crafts, and communications talents so that inheriting or developing one fosters the other.”

But art and creative thinking for scientists are just as important as STEM is for artists. Now more than ever, artists, designers, musicians, and writers are using STEM to find new mediums in which to work, inspiration to draw upon, and tools to hone their crafts. “As an artist working with technology I have found that the sciences dominate my subject matter,” says Jocelyn Klob-DeWitt, Assistant Professor of Art and Design at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. “My current work discusses biological organisms that have evolved attractive traits. As an artist I want people to be attracted to my work, looking at natural elements like sexual dimorphism and bioluminescence seemed like a logical inspiration.”

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Darlene Farris-Labar, Associate Professor of Art and Design using 3D printing to bring Science to life

Darlene Farris-Labar, Associate Professor of Art and Design using 3D printing to bring Science to life

Likewise, Darlene Farris-LaBar, an Associate Professor of Art and Design also at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania uses science as inspiration in her art, and passes that passion on to her students. Her current focus is 3D printing microscopic plankton that are not only major producers of oxygen but incredibly beautiful organisms. “My students have a lot more opportunities out there than I did when I was in their level. Today there’s a new appreciation for what artists can bring to a multi-disciplinary team,” Farris La-Bar says. “Having a STEM skill set not only makes them competitive, but makes them flexible depending on what doors open to them at what times.”

But how are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics being integrated into arts curricula and vice versa? One increasingly popular way instructors at every grade level are boosting student engagement, fostering interest in STEAM topics, and helping their students become more competitive in the job market is through 3D printing.


Ryan Erickson, MakerSpace Coordinator at Cedar Park STEM Elementary School in Apple Valley, MN, needed a way to help students understand challenging geology concepts. “A big part of the fifth grade science standard is how landforms are made through different processes,” says Erickson. “But understanding how natural processes take place over long periods of time can be difficult for students to grasp.”

Enter 3D printing. As part of Erickson’s class, he assigns each group of students a landform and asks them to research the impacts of erosion, deposition, and weathering. “A student might choose a meandering river, so he or she would study why it curves back and forth—as a result of erosion and deposition,” he explains.

Making ideas become reality

Making ideas become reality

After some background research, his students use a digital sculpting tool that simulates a block of clay to recreate the natural processes they’ve learned about. Being able to 3D print their final product, Erickson says, has a huge impact on their grasp of the material. “They hold it in their hands. It becomes real for them because they’ve actually created it. They can touch it and showcase it. 3D printing is Lego for the digital age.”

Other projects Erickson has done with students as young as kindergarten can be seen here.


Motivating students is a constant challenge for Amber Smith, a teacher at Cowan Road Middle School, a Title 1 school in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. Factors outside of the school such as poverty, gang activity, and difficult home lives detract from students’ ability to focus in the classroom. But thanks to a partnership with Georgia Tech, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders have access to a 3D printer right inside Smith’s classroom which, she says, has made an incredible difference.

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

One project that captivates Smith’s students entails creating their own cell phone cases. Students must measure their phones, and then design and 3D print personalized plastic cases to fit them. Students have been so excited by the project, they’ve competed for the chance to design a cell phone case for the school’s principal.


Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is a non-profit organization that helps K-12 classrooms throughout the United States integrate computer science, engineering, biomedical science and technology into their curricula. The organization emphasizes project-based learning as a way to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

In Colorado Springs, Colorado, PLTW state director Bill Lehman helped teachers identify a solution to a problem facing schools throughout the state: the need for a fast, easy and cost-effective way for young engineering students to prototype their designs. Rapid prototyping would allow students to iterate and learn more from the design process as they test ideas, make mistakes, solve design issues, and try again.

After evaluating different prototyping methods and researching available technology, Lehman, realized 3D printing was exactly the solution they were looking for. “The price of the 3D printer had come down to a very reasonable level…compared to expensive high-end rapid prototyping systems,” he says. “We could hardly afford not to do it.”

By adding the technology to their classroom, teachers have been able to put more time into design, function, and computer-based skills, rather than traditional trade skills such as metal and woodshop. “The students get really into it,” Bryce McLean, PLTW teacher at Coronado High School says. “The printer allows us…generate a model that is to their exact standards.”

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Art and Design

3D printing has become an integral tool for many kinds of artists. Fashion designers, visual artists, and graphic designers have all used 3D printers to push the boundaries of their respective arts. But engineering students at Rochester Institute of Technology, were challenged to apply 3D printing to art form not usually considered physical: music.

“Our assignment was to design, build and play a musical instrument,” says Joe Noble, a mechanical engineering undergraduate. With a team of two other students, Noble built a working, tunable ukulele. But the team didn’t stop there. Upon realizing they could 3D print with multiple colors, they designed a  multi-color 3D version of their school mascot and 3D printed it on the body of the instrument. The instrument itself became a work of art.

“It was one of my favorite classes that I’ve taken at RIT,” Noble says. “I now have a whole other dimension to the possibilities of prototyping. It is a very intriguing field. If I ended up working in it — in the actual development of the processes — I’d be stoked.”


When a diagram doesn’t do a complex mathematical concept justice, Dr. Edward Hanson, professor of mathematics at SUNY New Paltz and volunteer math teacher at Frank McCourt High School in New York City, turns to 3D printing. “I have seen some projects that provide tangible examples of the types of solids (solids of revolution) that are constructed in a calculus II course,” Hanson says. “These are particularly exciting to me because they give a physical presence to theoretical objects that can often be difficult to describe or draw.”

Through his work at Frank McCourt High School, he has seen the incredible and immediate reaction students have to the technology. “Student response was amazing. In little time they were designing interesting objects using software. They were fascinated by the presence of the 3D printer in their classroom,” he says. The technology was so interesting to students, Hanson’s teaching opportunities expanded beyond his own classroom roster as other students stopped by regularly to ask questions and watch the 3D printer in action.