Engineering History: 3D Printing in a Middle School History Class

Today was the culmination of a year img_0434of implementing a $10,000 STEAM Grant to the 8th Grade Social Studies program at my school.  At our local STEAM Showcase event, we were able to put some of our students in positions to share what they learned in the previous year, what skills they developed, and, as teachers, reflect upon the challenges, successes, and opportunities for growth. We were supplied with 3D printers, supplies, and 3D scanners to outfit our classrooms, but, the knowledge and experiences gained were just as valuable.

The most common question we received today, though, was something along the lines of this: “3D printing…but in Social Studies…in a history class?”  Listen, STEAM concepts are great.  Students should be challenged to use design thinking to combine knowledge from a variety of previously separate showcase1subjects to be creators.  But, shouldn’t these skills be integrated within classes throughout a student’s school day, rather than isolated to a single class that is the designated STEAM area?

Using this belief, myself and two of my colleagues applied for a 2015-2016 STEAM Grant, planning to allow students to create history, designing and making historic landmarks, forts, and innovations that have played vital roles in American History.  Full disclosure: we took a massive risk.  Not one of us had any experience in 3D printing when we applied for the grant.  When we got word that our grant was accepted, there was a definite learning opportunity for not only our students, but for us as teachers.

showcase2Looking back, I learned just as much as my students about trial and error, problem solving, and design thinking.  We actually had some hiccups early on as we were sent a faulty machine, and decided to send all of our devices back to the supplier to select a different model.  This resulted in a delay to our plans to start our implementation in September.  Instead, we were looking at January.

Fast forwarding to today, our students featured our Civil War Innovations project.  Last year, students selected a different Civil War innovation in which they had an interest.  Some students selected weaponry, some selected musical instruments, some focused on uniforms and other accessories, while others decided to direct their attention to technological and transportation innovations.  They began researching the impact and legacy of these items before making a decision on what it was that they wanted to create in 3D form.  They then took to the task of measuring, designing, erasing, re-designing, and sketching their soon-to-be creations.

Another hurdle, though: Students really didn’t have much, if any, of a knowledge base of how to take their sketched designs and transform them into a file downloadable for 3D printing.  The solution: Tinkercad.  Props to my ADE colleagues for recommending this resource!  It was simple to use, as I believe it is really designed for younger learners.  However, my students had to start somewhere, and, after going through a series of quick demos and interactive training lessons, most students were hooked.

Students excitedly worked together, solved each others problems, and made suggestions to each other of how to improve their designs.  What I thought would take a couple of weeks to accomplish really took a matter of days.  Students were anxiously awaiting their prints, which resulted in setting up prints to run after school hours and late into the evenings.  I got into a steady routine of monitoring prints remotely and asking our awesome school custodian to turn of the machine’s power at night before his shift ended.  I would hope that this experience led some of my students to enroll in high school level 3D courses, as they now could visualize their creations in addition to learning history-based content.  So, to answer the question…3D printing…in social studies…in American History?  Yes. Take a risk – why not?

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