Getting Started with 3D Printing

3D Printing project3D printing can be very intimidating to teachers. The idea of designing and creating objects from scratch sounds like something that only engineers should be doing after many years of university-level classes. However, 3D printing has become more affordable, and the printers have shrunk in size to fit on desktops. Students and teachers now have access to a tool that can really change the game in a classroom when it comes to design and creation.

Why 3D Printing? 

  1. It helps students demonstrate understanding. Along with seeming intimidating, you might also be thinking that 3D printing doesn’t really have a place in your curriculum. But instead of thinking, “I teach English language arts, so how do I work 3D printing into my lessons?” the real question should be, “What can my students design and build to demonstrate an understanding of our lessons?” The focus always needs to be on the learning outcomes and on giving students the opportunity to show what they have learned in creative ways. A 3D printer allows students who like to design and create an opportunity to do just that.
  2. It can be accessed by multiple students and used across the curriculum. Every teacher will have a different set of standards to teach, but a single 3D printer can be used by multiple classrooms. Students can create different objects to show how much they fully understand the content that was covered in class. Like all new things, it will take some time to learn how to use it, but you do not have to be an expert to share 3D printing with students.
  3. It allows for rapid prototyping and develops future-ready skills. It also provides an opportunity for students to grasp the design process and develop design-thinking skills, which can help students succeed in college and in future careers. Rapid prototyping is an important part of the design process. Taking ideas and putting together a prototype can help students see all of the details of their design and what might need to be changed to improve it before a final product is created. With a 3D printer, students can rapidly prototype within the classroom and even test their designs in real-world situations. By practicing design thinking, students develop critical-thinking skills, resilience, persistence, and a growth mindset.

Free 3D Printing Software Makes Designing Easy for Beginners

Designing in 3D might sound like a nightmare to someone who struggles with drawing or sketching, but it can actually be quite easy with the right tools. My go-to tool for all beginners is This free, web-based software is the perfect place to start for those interested in learning about 3D design. It has multiple tutorials that will walk any new user through the different uses of Tinkercad for 3D design. Tinkercad also has a large collection of videos on YouTube that provide more in-depth tips and tricks for using the design software to bring your ideas to life.

One of the things I have noticed when students are using Tinkercad is that they often skip the tutorials and jump right into designing. They will then search for how to do specific things when they need to learn how to do them. This search feature is nice for those students who like to explore and learn along the way, and the tutorials are perfect for people who love to learn all the basics before jumping into the design process.

Designing from scratch can be a tough way to start for a person who has never designed in 3D before. Luckily, there is a wonderful resource out there called Thingiverse. is a website that houses 3D designs by people from all over the world. From the simplest fidget spinner design to working gears, Thingiverse has a multitude of projects to choose from when looking for inspiration. It is free to use and all the files are free to download. If you are using Tinkercad, you can download an object from Thingiverse and then upload it to Tinkercad to edit the item however you would like. After you’ve been working with 3D printing for a while, you might want to create your own Thingiverse account for yourself or class to showcase all of the amazing designs you’ve created.

Model 21st Century Skills

Give students the opportunity to build problem-solving, design-thinking, and critical-thinking skills with 3D printing.

Connecting 3D Printing to the Curriculum

The question I get asked most often is about how to connect 3D design to the curriculum. There are plenty of different examples of how you can integrate 3D printing into your lessons; you just need to have a willingness to give students the freedom to create. Here are a few examples of how 3D printing can be used in different content areas.

English Language Arts
One of the best ways to engage students in the design process is to ask them to create a symbol for a story they just read. This could be for independent reading or a whole-class novel. This project gives students the freedom to interpret the story on their own and create an artifact that they will then explain to the entire class. The symbol could be based on a theme the students uncovered on their own, or it could be something the class has been discussing throughout the year. The beauty of this lesson is that it lets the students choose what they want to create, and every student will create something different.

Social Studies
I have seen some excellent examples of how 3D printing was used in social studies lessons. For example, a class had been studying ancient Egypt, and the teacher wanted the students to choose one aspect of the unit that interested them and dive deeper through personal research. After conducting their research, the students needed to create an artifact that demonstrated something they learned through their research. One student spent time exploring the Sphinx and thought it would be awesome to create his own version of the Sphinx from scratch. He had never used Tinkercad before, but over the course of a week, he was able to create a recognizable version of the Sphinx and showcase it to the class.

Allowing students the freedom to independently research aspects of a unit to learn more about it and then letting them create something to demonstrate what they learned is a great way to increase student engagement and ownership in the curriculum. In this example, the student did not have to choose 3D design, but it interested him and he wanted to learn more about it.

One of the most common assignments in middle school science is learning about the cell and building a model of it for class. It is one of the reasons that just about everyone knows that mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell. Clay can be used to create pieces of the cell; however, using 3D design to create the different aspects of the cell gives students a more accurate set of shapes to assemble. While it might take a bit more time to create the shapes, it can provide a stunningly accurate depiction of a cell that students can use to explain cells to their classmates when they are done.

These are just a few of the possibilities of how 3D design can be used to create artifacts that demonstrate understanding. As you think about 3D design and where it fits in the curriculum, remember that 3D design might not be the best tool for every lesson and not every student will want to design in 3D. Focus on giving students the opportunity to explore, create, and share what they have learned. When they have that sense of freedom and ownership, the students who are interested will gravitate toward 3D design and create some of the most amazing things.

If you have any questions about using 3D design in the classroom or creating a project-based learning environment for your classroom that supports the maker mentality, feel free to reach out to me @TheNerdyTeacher.


Nicholas Provenzano

Nicholas Provenzano

Technology Coordinator and Makerspace Director at University Liggett School in Michigan
Known as The Nerdy Teacher, Nicholas is the Technology Coordinator and Makerspace Director at University Liggett School in Michigan, and is also a prolific author, speaker and consultant. He writes on his website,,, and many other prominent educational websites. Nicholas has been featured on, Education Week, The New York Times, and other media outlets and is the author of the best-selling book, Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces. In 2013, he was awarded the Technology Teacher of the Year by MACUL and ISTE. He is also a Google Certified Innovator, Raspberry Pi Certified Educator and a TEDEd Innovative Educator. Nicholas is sharing plenty of nerdy things on the Ideas and Inspiration site, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @thenerdyteacher.