First, train your staff. Then plan your curriculum – and think about leasing. It makes it easier to budget

When I started as a graphic design teacher we used Camm-2 machines, where computers helped to direct machines. By the time I left, 10 years later, I was working alongside 3D printers and laser cutters.

In 2013, the Department for Education (DfE) spent £500,000 to buy 3D printers for 60 schools. A report about the project concluded that by itself, this wasn’t going to improve learning. To make that happen, “good quality upfront training was required from the outset”. Models of printer that have designs pre-loaded meant teachers were immediately satisfied with what they could do, but the printers were not impacting learning, especially because few teachers could design their own models as it relied “on an understanding of computer-aided design” not usually taught, or known, outside of design technology.

So how can you use 3D printers most effectively with students?

Initially, I developed courses based around teaching and preaching to students. Typical work-through tutorials worked well and students got it quickly. But the GCSE requires more independent thought – and this wasn’t happening after the workthroughs.

Using one CAD package (Autodesk Inventor) made it easy to make tutorials, but they became time consuming and missed the “find it out” skills that students needed – the inquisitiveness, independence, the difficult things to impact!

We restructured in version two. Students were shown the basic principles using a variety of CAD software and then could work in their chosen software package. They teamed up with each other in order to collaborate and shared. But this made internal assessment tricky.

Don’t be scared to relinquish control to your students

For me, having a couple of software packages to use was great. I learnt with the students and they could see my approach to learning. Non-specialist teachers opted to use the entry level programs and had great successes when they showed students that they were learning, too. What became apparent, very quickly, was that a “how did you do that Sir?” approach worked!

We didn’t have the budget for kit or training at this point, so used open source/freeware. We figured students could extend learning into commercial platforms later. We felt this was key to exposing students to a multitude of CAD packages, so that they could use and choose. Don’t be scared to relinquish control.

Having looked at a variety of 3D printers, purchasing the kit was a thorny issue. I would almost always opt to lease; it makes it easier to budget over the long term.

But how do you decide what to get? First, get a demo. Then think about who will be using the printer. Will it be technicians, staff, and students? What about time? How long are your lessons? And where will it be kept? For example – will it be away from classes to avoid the noise/smell/fiddle factor?

Most printers take a while to deliver their goods, even low resolution/small ones need time at the end for cleaning off, blowing, cooling and dipping.

From my experience, powder-based 3D printers (such as ZCorp) were excellent and allowed us to fill the work area without wasting time/materials. Reel 3D printers were excellent for hobbyists. MakerBot’s simple interface makes them popular and a great community, but they take a lot of time to print multiple objects.

Liquid resin printers are relatively quick, and have the sort of materials that are more practical. The downside, though, is in the processing afterwards – and the use of liquid resin in workshops (always a sharp intake of breath!). My particular favourite of the liquid resin was the Formlabs Form 1.

Whichever approach you go for, to make 3D printers “work”, you have to plan. I recommend that you start with training. Then curriculum plan. And only then buy! Get demo units in. Test, test test. And always take a good look at why you want or need one before you buy.

James Hannam is a consultant on technology and teaching

@LRNMKR on Twitter

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