Inspire Creativity in Your Class with a 3D Printer
One of the favorite aspects of my job is seeing the excitement kids experience when they see 3D printing in real life.
3D printing is now being used daily in many industries. From architecture to the manufacture of airplanes, it’s creating objects that just couldn’t exist without the unique capabilities it possesses.
In fact, the technology has developed so much in recent years that it’s becoming more and more common for hobbyists to have their own 3D printer at home.
It’s therefore vitally important that schools keep up with this trend so that the engineers, designers, and architects of tomorrow leave school familiar with the technology that they will be using in their future careers.
Thankfully, 3D Printers are increasingly finding their way into classrooms across the country.
3D printers don’t only prepare future engineers they are also an excellent teaching aid for numerous subjects. They can bring a fun and physical element to topics such as math or biology.
And they are great at inspiring creativity. Which other technologies allow a child to see the design they drew on paper come to life as a physical object in a matter of hours?
You can also use your 3D printer to build educational tools rather than buying them. You can have your class design and print items such as learning aids. Or even laboratory equipment that you can use for years to come. Printing reusable education tools can be an easy way for you to recoup the cost of your 3D printer.
Ideas for How to Use a 3D Printer in Your Classroom
3D Printers are great learning tools for your classroom. But what you shouldn’t do is download a model and have your students spend an hour watching it print! You need to integrate your new 3D printer with what your students are already learning in their curriculum.
Here are some ideas of how to use a 3D printer to enhance your student’s understanding and enthusiasm in different subjects.
Engineering is usually a very theoretical subject for students to learn about because it’s expensive and time-consuming to construct real-life examples of engineering solutions. 3D printing changes this.
You can quickly and easily print examples of hundreds of engineering concepts. There are excellent examples of ready to print models available to download for free. Like this unique planetary gear model that is a perfect demonstration of gears, bearings, and is an example of an object that can only be manufactured by 3D printing.
It’s also a good idea to base a group project around the 3D printer. You can have your students collaborate to build a load-bearing suspension bridge or a motorized robot arm.
You can always make Math more straightforward to understand by relating it to real life. For younger students, you can design and print models that demonstrate fractions or percentages.
For older students, you can print complex mathematical shapes like a 120-cell 4D dodecahedron or even create models to explain knot theory.
Plenty of detailed anatomical models exist of organs. These can be downloaded and printed to help your students understanding.
You can print models of skeleton and ligament structure that show how these allow us to move or how they differ in various animals.
3D printing is increasingly becoming mainstream in both the world of art and fashion design. It’s an incredibly flexible tool that stimulates creativity and allows you to manufacture complex and detailed shapes at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.
You might not think to associate 3D printing with history, but it can be a great tool to bring history to life. A favorite project idea is to print replicas of historical artifacts. From Roman aqueducts to Greek pottery, your students can experience hands-on history.
3D printed Egyptian Cartouches are another fun history project that you can use to help your students learn hieroglyphs.
For younger students, 3D printed letters and shapes are useful teaching aids.
You can even get an older class to learn about 3D printing by designing the teaching aids for a younger class. They will no doubt get a big kick out of seeing their designs being enjoyed by the younger children.
Of course, a big part of having a 3D printer in your school is giving your students the opportunity to learn about 3D printing itself.
There are two aspects to learning about 3D printing. How the printer itself works. The mechanisms and controls that make it possible and how you can use the unique abilities of 3D printing to improve the manufacturing process.
It’s much easier for students to learn about the mechanisms that make 3D printers work when the object is working in front of them. 3D printers tend to be quite open in their design so students can easily see the moving parts.
Older students can experiment with more advanced settings and see how changes in extrusion rates and temperatures affect their 3D printed objects.
As you can see, there’s a lot for you to gain when buying a 3D printer for your school or college. Let’s take a look at what features you might want in a 3D printer, and finally I’ll recommend my top choices.
What to Look For When Buying a 3D Printer for Your Classroom
Buying a 3D printer for your classroom will require you to look for some different attributes than you may see mentioned in buyers guides aimed at home use or business use.
Easy to Setup
Some 3D printers require almost no initial setup. Once you’ve taken it out of the box, you just plug it in and load in your material. You should be able to start your first 3D print in a matter of minutes.
There are plenty of 3D printers available that are much more complicated than this. From complete DIY kits that take days to assemble to 3D printers that are made to a budget and so save money by having you do some of the assembly.
In this guide, I will only recommend 3D printers that are ready to go out of the box, with minimal setup required by yourself.
I know that everyone who works in education is busy! So that last thing you need is to be making a kit 3D printer and then diagnosing teething problems when you forget to tighten one of the bolts!
Although 3D printing is fast, you will often have to leave your 3D printer to continue its printing unattended, maybe even overnight.
The last thing you want is to have a print fail after multiple hours of printing time.
The best 3D printers are built with quality materials to high tolerances. They will also use printing materials and software that optimize your prints with the most reliable settings.
In this guide, I will only recommend 3D printers that have the quality and features needed to give them a solid reputation for reliability.
Although 3D printing is fast, even the smallest of prints will take up to an hour to complete. So you probably won’t be able to complete your prints within the class time.
Nonetheless, some 3D printers are slower than others, and you should avoid those that are very slow as you could end up waiting days for prints to complete.
The best 3D printers have default settings or hardware such as nozzle diameters that you can change to give you the right compromise between speed and quality for your application.
For a lot of 3D printing applications like architectural models or jewelry pieces, quality is critical. But in the classroom, it might not be so vital. Children will already be excited to see their creations come to life; they are unlikely to care too much about how much detail is showing.
This may be different if you have a specific idea in mind. For example, if you’re going to create moving mechanisms then you will need a printer that can print the tolerance necessary for the mechanism to work.
The maximum size of objects a 3D printer can make is called the build volume. This is the theoretical largest rectangle that the printer can produce.
You may be tempted to buy a 3D printer with the largest build volume, but you should remember that it’s common practice to split larger objects into separate parts and then bond them together once printed with glue.
Also, kids often work to the limits you give them. So, if you tell them they have a large build volume to work in, they will create a big object that fills it, and you will then have to wait longer for it to print and use more filament to make it!
Most 3D printers print using a plastic material called PLA which is short for Poly Lactic Acid. PLA is derived from natural plant material like sugar cane, and when it melts it even gives off a non-toxic slightly sweet smell.
For the classroom, PLA is an excellent choice of material because it’s non-toxic both in its cold and heated states and it doesn’t give off a toxic vapor when it is heated in the 3D printing process.
ABS, on the other hand, does give off toxic fumes when it is heated in the 3D printer. This means you must either have a suitable ventilation solution in place. Or, you must keep your students away from the 3D printer when it is printing.
Ventilation is the most straightforward option when using ABS materials. I recommend you invest in an air purifier like the Honeywell True Hepa Allergen Remover.
The price of 3D printers has dropped dramatically in the last few years while the quality has equally risen.
You should be able to find a 3D printer to suit whatever budget you have.
The compromises you will have to make with a lower budget printer are; fewer material options, a lower print quality and more hands-on setting up.
One of the best ways to improve your classes 3D printing experience is to invest in more than one 3D printer.
Multiple printers will allow more of your students to use a 3D printer and so maintain their enthusiasm. I’m sure you know there’s nothing like a lack of patience to dampen youthful excitement!
You could even create your own maker lab where members of the public pay to use your 3D printers!
Best 3D Printer with Lesson Plan
The Dremel 3D40-EDU is a complete 3D printer package designed specifically for your K-12 classroom.
It’s built around Dremel’s award-winning 3D40 printer that has proven to be a reliable, safe and easy to use 3D printer.
The educational package gives you a kit of extra bits to get your lessons flowing as quickly as possible. As well as a full set of lesson plans and a personal development course for yourself. So you can learn the basics of 3D printing and get up to speed quickly.
Dremel 3D40 Review
The 3D40 has been designed and built specifically to be easy and safe to use in a classroom environment.
It uses only Dremel’s own PLA filament which means you won’t have any problems with poor quality 3rd party filament damaging your machine.
The build volume is a generous 10″ x 6″ x 6.7″. A removable build plate allows you to remove your prints on the bench, rather than in the confines of the 3D printer.
You’ll find setting up of the 3D40 a breeze with their new ‘Quik Level’ system. The on-screen icons walk you through the process of leveling the print bed.
It simply tells you how many notches to turn each of the two adjusters. I’ve no doubt you’ll have no problems finding plenty of willing volunteers to carry out this vital task!
The extruder has been designed to be entirely clog-resistant. This is a significant advantage as it’s one of the most common causes of print failure on other 3D printers. It will no doubt save you from the frustration of finding a failed build waiting for you in the morning.
Dremel is, of course, a household name and they have taken great care to maintain their reputation for quality and reliability with the 3D40.
Dremel’s customer care is second to none, and 3D40 users report nothing but friendly, helpful advice from the customer helpline, both online and by phone.
Using the Dremel 3D40
Dremel uses a web-based design software called ‘Dremel Print Studio.’ From here you can load in any of the 3D models that are included in the package or upload your student’s own designs from any CAD package such as the popular ‘TinkerCAD.’
Getting your virtual model to the printer is easy thanks to plenty of connectivity options. Wi-Fi, Ethernet, USB, and SD-card are all available.
In operation, the 3D40 is sufficiently quiet that it could be left running in your classroom while you teach. The motor has an intelligent drive system that reduces the amount of travel and therefore noise it makes to a minimum.
The 3D40 can print down to a layer height of 100 microns which will give you an excellent smooth finish that is perfect for most classroom applications.
For an increase in speed, you can up this to 200 or 300 microns.
Overall, the print quality from the 3D40 is excellent.
You can read my full review of the Dremel 3D40 here.
As well as the 3D printer itself, you will get four rolls of PLA filament of different colors. To give you an idea of how much that is, one roll of filament would be enough for you to print 100 iPhone cases or 200 Keychains.
You also get a generous selection of build tape. You use build tape to ensure your prints attach properly to the build plate. This stops them from falling over or moving during printing.
It can take a little trial and error to get this right so it’s very useful that Dremel includes something that will work right out of the box.
Finally, you are given an extra build plate. This is a great idea, as it significantly reduces the amount of time your 3D printer is sat idle.
Once your first batch of prints is finished, you can straight away remove the platform and put the spare one in to get your printer started on the next batch.
Meanwhile, you can get your students removing the prints from the first build plate and carrying out any necessary post-processing or tidying.
You’re given 30 lesson plans which are included on a USB drive with the 3D40 printer. The lessons are split into different grade levels from Elementary Grade 3 through High School Grade 12.
With each lesson, you are given an accompanying 3D model file that your students can interact with and modify on screen before sending to your 3D printer.
The Dremel 3D40-EDU is a perfect 3D printing lesson package. It has everything you need to learn about 3D printing yourself as an educator. Lesson plans for your students and the included hardware kit is designed specifically for the classroom. So it won’t let you down regarding quality or reliability.
When you take the Ultimaker 2+ out of the box, you can’t help but be impressed by its build quality. It certainly looks and feels like a professional piece of kit.
This high standard of build quality allows the Ultimaker 2+ to offer you some of the highest quality prints you’re likely to achieve on an FDM 3D Printer.
There is little for you to do in terms of setup. The print bed does require you to carry out a manual calibration. However, it is well designed so it’s a simple process if you follow the instructions. Because the printer is so well made, you won’t have to calibrate the print bed very often.
The Ultimaker 2+ has a number of features that make it one of the most reliable 3D printers available. Firstly, it’s built using a very high standard of materials. In both the chassis and drive systems, high-quality components have been used. Secondly, it has features such as twin cooling fans directed at the hot end and a chassis that’s enclosed on four sides. These both serve to create a stable and protected environment for your prints, so they are much less likely to fail.
Ultimaker have a very active online community, and the consensus from those users is that the UM2+ is a reliable printer that can be relied upon in a business or industrial setting.
Using the Ultimaker 2+
The UM2+ comes readily equipped with Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and USB so loading your prints onto the printer is not a problem, whether your computer is in the same room as your printer or not.
Ultimaker includes their own Cura software. Cura includes default settings for Ultimaker’s filaments, so you can just upload your geometry and press go using the optimal settings.
Or, for more advanced uses, and for older students you can delve into the settings and play with the hundreds of tweakable parameters available to you.
You can remotely monitor your print progress by accessing the onboard webcam via Wi-Fi. This is useful for you to keep an eye on progress especially if your printer is kept in a different room.
The build volume is 8.5″ x 8.5″ x 7.9″ which is about average for FDM printers and shouldn’t limit you in classroom use.
The Ultimaker 2+ is not fully enclosed. Instead, the top remains open. This can be an issue when printing ABS in the classroom, and so an extraction system is recommended if printing ABS. Or, as I mention below, you can use the non-toxic CPE filament if you need something stronger than PLA.
The Ultimaker 2+ excels when it comes to print quality. At the highest quality setting the build layers are genuinely barely visible.
Print resolution is between 20 to 200 microns, which is outstanding and more than enough for the most detailed of prints.
Printing such levels of detail can make for slow progress but fortunately, Ultimaker include a selection of four nozzle sizes with the UM2+, so you can easily print quicker at a lower resolution if it fits your application better.
The Ultimaker 2+ uses 3mm filament. If you use Ultimaker’s own filament, then the reels contain an NFC tag that tells the printer the filament type and color.
However, you’re not tied to Ultimaker brand filament, but you are in fact free to use whichever filament brand you like.
You can print in many different filament material types. From ABS to PLA, Nylon, and even CPE.
CPE (copolyester) is a new filament that is a good choice for classroom use. It has similar properties to ABS, like high strength and durability, but it doesn’t give off the high levels of harmful vapors containing VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and UFPs (Ultra Fine Particles) that ABS does.
CPE is ideal for functional parts that need structural integrity or chemical resistance. There is also a CPE+ filament that is a further ten times tougher than CPE as well as being temperature resistant up to 100°C.
The Ultimaker 2+ is a great all-round machine that can be run nearly fully automated for beginners and younger students, but it also offers flexibility and features that older students will benefit from.
Its bullet-proof reliability and ease of use make it a strong contender for educational use. The UM2+ makes it easy for you to spend all your time teaching and less time tinkering.
Its ability to print with almost any material you can throw at it is a great benefit if you want to use if with older students in high school or college level.
The Ultimaker 2+ ability to print in such fine detail also makes it a perfect 3D printer for artist applications so it will be equally at home in your school’s art department as it would in Engineering.
The LulzBot TAZ 6 is an advanced 3D printer that gives you complete freedom to use whichever software and filament you prefer. Hundreds of schools, colleges, and libraries across the country are already using it every day.
It’s one of the largest 3D printers in this price range and has a very generous build volume of 280mm x 280mm x 250mm (11″ x 11″ x 9.8″) which will allow you to print many objects at once so your students won’t get too impatient.
After you open the box, you’ll need to do about an hours worth of initial assembly and setup. Luckily the instructions are clear and well written so you should find it a stress-free process. It’s all simple stuff like attaching the printhead with a handful of screws and connecting a few cables.
You load the filament into the extruder via a guide tube. This process is easier on most other printers and fully automated on some but shouldn’t cause you any problems once you’ve got the knack.
The print bed has auto leveling which is an excellent feature for classroom use as regular manual calibration can be frustrating when time is at a premium.
The Lulzbot TAZ6 is a very well designed and made 3D printer that shouldn’t suffer from any significant reliability problems. It has a very popular following online with few reports of malfunctions even after thousands of hours of use.
It has several features that make it one of the most reliable 3D printers regarding print failure rate. Firstly the automatic print bed leveling solves one of the most common causes of print failure.
Another great feature is the inclusion of a small felt pad that automatically cleans the extruder tip before each print. This wipes away any excess filament that was stuck to the printhead and could potentially spoil your next print.
With the two most common causes of print failure taken care of the TAZ6 will give you a near 100% print success rate.
The TAZ6 can handle an impressive range of filaments. With an extruder that heats up to 572°F, you are free to use almost any material you like, from PLA, nGen, and HIPS though ABS, and nylon, as well as exotic blends like conductive PLA or wood blends.
The second most common 3mm size filament is used. And you are free to use any brand, so you have a wide choice of compatible materials available to you.
Using the LulzBot TAZ6
The TAZ 6 comes with LulzBot’s version of the highly regarded Cura software.
Cura LulzBot Edition offers you fully automated processing of your 3D models to make them ready for 3D printing, which is perfect for beginners and younger students.
But it also has the benefit of offering your plenty of tweakable parameters to help you and your students learn more advanced aspects of designing for 3D printing.
Once you’re ready to print you can transfer your files with a USB connection or an SD card. This means you don’t have to locate your 3D printer next to a computer.
You can start and stop the print from the LCD screen, and in use, a progress bar appears showing the percentage build time complete.
Because of its open design, the TAZ6 is a little noisier than enclosed printers. If you’re using it in a small room, you may find the whirr of motors a little distracting.
The prints come off build very clean with a noticeable lack of blobs and spider webbing, and the layer definition is very subtle.
Using the Cura default High Detail setting can achieve a 0.18mm layer height. This is good for most applications and more than enough for most classroom applications.
You can swap to the High Speed setting which reduces the layer height resolution to 0.38mm but will allow you to print much faster, around three times quicker than the High-Quality setting.
The LulzBot TAZ 6 is an excellent all-round 3D printer that gives you advanced options beyond the basics. You are free to print in most materials and use software that opens up a world of advanced settings.
For beginners and younger students, the TAZ6 is perhaps too advanced. However, if you have plans to take your 3D printing lessons to the next level you can’t get much better than the TAZ6.
For older students in college and university, the TAZ6 is a perfect choice that will prepare them for exactly the workflow they will see in the workplace.
As soon as you take the Monoprice Select Mini out of the box, you can feel that it’s sturdily built. The construction of the chassis is mainly sheet steel which gives it a satisfying industrial look. It looks appropriately scientific for the classroom.
All the moving parts such as gears and belts are well hidden, so you don’t have to worry about inquisitive fingers getting injured.
There’s an LCD display on the front of the printer that is a very clear screen that’s easy to read. It shows you useful info like time left to complete the current print as well as being used for file navigation if you’re not connecting your printer to a computer.
The screen is not a touchscreen but has a clicky wheel instead to navigate the menus. In a classroom situation, this is a benefit as touch screens are more prone to damage and reliability problems.
The Select Mini comes fully assembled, but you do have to calibrate the print bed manually. Calibration is the procedure of making sure the platform your 3D print is supported on is level.
On more expensive machines this process is automatic, but on cheaper machines, it’s a hands-on task. It’s not a difficult task, but you do have to be precise as if your print bed is not level your prints can fail.
To level the print bed, you slide a sheet of paper between the nozzle and the print bed at each of the four corners in turn. You turn a hex screw to raise or lower each corner until the paper can slide between the nozzle and the bed with just a small amount of friction.
You will need to carry this out regularly, ideally before each build. Older teens will be able to carry out this important task, but younger students may find it too fiddly so teacher will have to take responsibility.
Next, you have to feed the filament into the extruder. On the Select Mini, this can be a little fiddly until you’ve done it a few times. Again it’s a task that’s best-taken care of by the teacher.
The Select Mini is a reliable 3D printer. It has a very enthusiastic following, and you can find several online communities dedicated to it. The prevailing opinion in these communities is that it is likely to run without problems for many thousands of hours and it’s unlikely to suffer from any reliability problems. When it does have problems, the sorts of faults that may occur are cheap and easy to fix.
The sorts of issues you’re more likely to experience are print quality problems due to incorrect settings, poor quality filament or an unlevel print bed. All of which are easy to avoid by not doing them!
Using the Monoprice Select Mini
Monoprice recommends using Cura, Repetier, Replicator-G or Simplify3D software. In other words, you have freedom. You can check out my 3D printer software guide to help you decide which one will suit you best.
For educational use, I’d recommend the free software Cura as it can prepare parts for you using default settings or give you complete manual control and everything in between. Being able to use third party software is one of the significant benefits of the Select Mini as it opens up a whole world of advanced settings and CAD model preparation that is no different to what is done in industry.
This 3D printer is fairly loud; I’d say you will need to be able to keep it in a room that you can walk out of and close the door on. It does have an SD card slot, and I’d recommend that you transfer files to it in this way. Then you can keep your computer/laptop separate from it while it builds away, the large color LCD screen makes this a doddle.
It’s not hard to get good quality, reliable prints from the Select Mini.
If you use a good quality PLA filament like Hatchbox, setup your print bed accurately and some online research to pick the best slicer settings, then your prints will be of good quality, certainly good enough for classroom use and your printer will be reliable.
The main positive of the Select Mini is also its Achilles heel. Because you have the freedom to use any material and any software with it, there are a lot of opportunities for you to make the wrong choice.
This freedom opens up a lot of options for you and your students, and ultimately the quality of prints you obtain from the Mini is only limited by your time and desire to experiment with different settings and materials.
You can technically print using ABS and other materials on the Select Mini. But as it’s not an enclosed printer it’s reliability when printing these more sensitive materials can be affected by changes in temperature, draughts, and humidity from its surrounding environment.
A good project for high-school students might be to design an enclosure for your Select Mini and see how this affects its print quality.
You can’t get a cheaper 3D printer than the Monoprice Select Mini. This is impressive because it’s a surprisingly capable machine that outperforms plenty of more expensive rivals.
For classroom use it wouldn’t be my first choice, but, if your budget is limited and you don’t mind spending some time working out the best settings, there’s no reason why it can’t be a competent teaching aid.
Some schools are making the most of the Select Mini’s low price and are buying several machines to make a small production line of 3D printers.
Having multiple machines is an excellent way to take advantage of the low price. Once you have dialed in the optimum settings on one machine, you can easily apply the same changes to the rest of your fleet.
And with a few printers on the go, your students will have much more opportunity to get hands-on experience of 3D printing, which is what it’s all about.