6 departments ripe for 3D learning

Some of the country’s most innovative higher-ed programs are using 3D learning to boost engagement, prepare students for a new workforce.

maker-3D-learningAs institutions make room in the classroom (and within 2016 budgets) to add more technology to learning programs, 3D printing tools are at the top of the must-have list, especially for specific departments on campus.

According to colleges and universities, this technology is on the 2016 must-have list because 3D printing not only brings educational concepts to life for students, but supports next-level learning by developing more agile and creative thinkers.

For educators and administrators looking to enhance learning, here are five educational departments ripe for 3D printing, as well as insights on how educators can implement the technology into their curriculum.

Architecture / Interior Design

Imagine studying the architectural detail of the Roman Parthenon in full-color, high-resolution physical 3D. Architectural 3D printing in realistic color can give students a tangible perspective on scale, texture, geometry and overall understanding of design that 2D resources can’t provide.

In addition, exposing architecture and design students to 3D printing early on sets the stage for the future of building. Not only are design and construction companies using 3D printing to transform digital CAD drawings into real, tangible spaces, they’re also using 3D print capabilities to improve understanding of design intent and gain buy-in faster from all stakeholders. Familiarizing students with 3D print capabilities today sets the foundation for students to continue innovating the ways 3D printing will be used in future structural design.

Life Sciences

No matter the curriculum, all students learn differently and 3D printing is an effective way to help students use a wider variety of senses to connect the dots and learn subject matter. This connection proves most critical in helping life sciences and medical students understand the delicate intricacies of both human and animal anatomy.

When it comes to a medical education application, photorealistic color 3D printing gives a 2D X-ray or CT scan a third dimension, allowing emerging and existing doctors and their attendants to plan and practice on realistic models of the patient’s anatomy prior to surgery. Using full-color 3D printing has the potential to reduce a patient’s time in surgery and improve their outcome.

The Western University of Health Science uses 3D printing to produce realistic bone models, such as the skull, ribs, vertebrae and more, to help enhance veterinary and medical students’ understanding of body movement and its impact on health and illness. This type of visualization is important for helping these budding professionals more quickly identify, diagnose and correct medical ailments for future patients. Additionally, the use of a full-color 3D printer enables students to identify the realistic anatomy of bones, such as where muscle attachments and blood vessels are located.

(Next page: History, Fine Arts, Geospatial)

History and Anthropology

The ability to physically connect with cultures and traditions of times past is one of the biggest advantages educators can provide students studying history and anthropology. While medical students are using 3D printing to diagnose medical ailments and inform health procedures of the future, 3D printing is also being used to revitalize ancient artifacts and bring history to life.

Imagine studying an ancient Greek war and 3D printing an accurate replica of a Greek soldier’s helmet for students to study. Whether it’s using 3D printing to analyze and restore skull deformation from priests found in an Incan temple or scanning artifacts (like a 3000 year old mummy) to provide exact 3D printed replicas for research and study, 3D printing connects students with precise copies of artifacts that would otherwise be “unattainable” to access due to their rarity, delicate nature or price.

Fine Art

Today’s students have the potential to hone their craft by studying the artistic form of master artists using 3D printing. Replicating a full-color 3D model of any fine art object can parallel details not visible from a 2D textbook, such as the texture of a sculpture. Not only can 3D printing convey far more information and meaning than a 2D image, it also exposes students to next generation processes of fine art restoration and conservation.

3D printing can also enable students to combine their creativity with technology to realize their own unique vision. Traditionally, fine art educational departments have been slow to realize possible applications for 3D printing. However, Keith Brown, a professor at The Manchester School of Art, is pushing new boundaries in sculpture by adopting 3D printing to explore design beyond the confines of handcrafting and CAD software to give designs new meaning. The end result helps him articulate geometry and form in a way that transcends physical form, giving students the ability to produce meaningful works of art and sculpture that can’t be produced in any other way.


The Geological Society of America names geoscientists as some of most prolific producers of three-dimensional data. They use the power of computers to make accurate and speedy calculations on 3D data sets, which is impossible for humans to match. Exposing students to full color three dimensional printing allows them to transform their calculations into accurate, realistic and intricate representations of terrain, cities and even subsurface 3D maps in a short time.

Developing realistic, full-color models of landscape and terrain isn’t just an engaging lesson in geography. It is also being used in the field. One such volcanologist, Ian Saginor, is using photorealistic 3D models that illustrate terrain, topography, man-made structures and more in order to track and predict outcomes of volcanic eruption. In collaboration with colleagues at Oregon State College, Saginor is comparing and quantifying the effectiveness a 2D map, a 3D digital image and a full-color 3D printed model have on people’s understanding and perceptions of volcanic hazards. For example, you can 3D print lava and ash flow in valleys to better convey how they might impact a proposed resort or residential development.

Thus far, Saginor has created 3D printed topographical models of Poás, a very active volcano near the Costa Rican capital of San José, as well as volcanoes Turrialba and Irazu, also located in Costa Rica.


Just as tangibility is helpful in providing perspective for architecture, the same can be said for math. While most mathematical teachings rest on 2D visuals, such as drawings on a chalkboard, it can be hard for visual learners to conceptualize the images. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem (for a right triangle, A2 + B2 = C2) is universally taught around the world but can be hard to conceptualize. However, if you can show students a 3D printed square and its parts to show that there is one square within another square, and when you put the pieces (representing the A2 and B2) together they make up the sum of the bigger square (C2) it’s easy to see how the theorem works.

With visually impaired students comes another set of obstacles, as shading in fractions of a circle on a chalkboard won’t explain how 1/6 is smaller than 1/3, despite 6 being bigger than 3. However, fractions can be more easily understood through 3D printing, as it’s clear that 1/6 smaller than 1/3 when it’s held in your hand.

(Next page: 3 questions to ask about the right printer)

How to Find the Right Printer

Before departments introduce 3D printing into learning programs, it’s important to make sure the printer introduced is the right fit. Here are three questions to keep in mind when evaluating 3D printers for your department:

1.Is the machine safe for students and environmentally friendly? Ensure student safety by finding a printer that doesn’t emit harmful particles, fumes, noise, or generate exposed heat. 3D printers, such as those using plastic, powders or other harmful materials to produce objects, require educators to put more safety protocols into place before using them in the classroom or risk the safety of their students and themselves. Safer, more environmentally friendly options, such as paper-based 3D printers, eliminate the chance of exposing students to hazardous materials and provide fully Green processes.

2.What is the total investment? It’s very important to understand the costs of the printer. Although many desktop plastic-based 3D printers are inexpensive to purchase, the ongoing cost of the materials needed to print is often prohibitive for institutions and students, and the printers themselves are frequently unreliable when needed. In comparison, the ongoing cost of paper-based 3D printers is 10-20 percent the cost of any other 3D printing technology and the printers are highly reliable. Doing diligent research on this front prevents educators and students from footing the bill for expensive materials and 3D printer downtime.

3.Do the features match the needs of the students? Understanding the features and functionality the printer can provide is important to meeting the educational needs of students. One of the biggest features missing from 3D printers in use today: full color. Many educators are falsely “sold” on using 3D printers that operate single-color plastic spools. However, using a one-color 3D printer is akin to using a 2D inkjet printer that only prints one color at a time. Educators should realize that there is tremendous educational demand and need for 3D printing across academic disciplines, but only if the machine’s features can provide photorealistic-color 3D printed objects.

Dr. Conor MacCormack is co-founder and CEO of Mcor.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.