Fabricating Engagement: Benefits and Challenges of Using 3D Printing to Engage Underrepresented Students in STEM Learning

Fabricating Engagement: Benefits and Challenges of Using 3D Printing to Engage Underrepresented Students in STEM Learning


In recent years, “maker” culture and 3D printing have become increasingly popular. Member-driven and community-based makerspaces are cropping up across the U.S. offering access to digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, CNC mills, and 3D printers. Schools are also beginning to take interest, with groups like MakerEd working to promote the educational benefits of maker skills in both formal and informal learning spaces. We have explored the use of one tool in particular, 3D printing, as a means to engage underrepresented students in STEM learning. The cost of 3D printers has decreased dramatically while both their reliability and availability have steadily increased. Additionally, there is an array of free and open source 3D modeling tools available. A low-cost entry point and the ability to create tangible artifacts rapidly sets up 3D printing as a prime opportunity to promote an interest in engineering sciences in schools. We present findings from two case studies leveraging 3D printing for two underrepresented populations in STEM learning.

Our first case study took place at an elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland. We conducted a yearlong, researcher-run 3D printing and modeling workshop for 3rd and 4th graders enrolled in an afterschool program. This workshop was conducted on a weekly basis and lessons learned helped prepare students to participate in a regional competition in which they were challenged to solve problems in their city using digital fabrication tools. The vast majority of students who attended this workshop were from racial/ethnic groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering fields.

The second case study took place in a university classroom working with students with intellectual disabilities (ID). Our university offers a four-year, postsecondary (PS) certificate program for young adults with ID that seeks to promote independence and employability for its students. For two years, we have taught an integrated course made up of undergraduate students without disclosed disabilities working with students with ID from this PS program. The course has many goals, chief among them to promote awareness of students with ID on campus, dispel misconceptions about the abilities of these students, and to promote an interest in STEM fields for all students involved. Persons with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in engineering disciplines and people with ID experience unemployment greater than 60%.

For both environments, we provided students with access to 3D printers, printing filament and related materials, and taught the basics of 3D printing and 3D modeling. We tailored lessons, activities, and goals to the populations and their environments. From our field work, we have collected data and observations on (1) techniques for engaging and maintaining interest in 3D printing, (2) the unique needs and perceptions of our student populations at each site, and (3) the best practices for teaching 3D printing in formal and informal learning environments. We have found 3D printing to be an excellent entry point for these students, and we hope future educators and researchers find our case studies useful when considering 3D printing for student engagement.

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