Joining the 3D Printed Revolution

Photo by Ines Alvarez-Fdez.

While browsing the math blogosphere on Twitter, I found myself diving into the wonderful 3D printing posts. Back in 2014, Evelyn Lamb wrote a post in this blog called “The Revolution Will Be 3D Printed”. Inspired by the title, I was curious to explore how 3D printing has evolved in the last few years and some of its uses in the classroom.

3D printing gives us a way to bring an abstract concept to life and interact with it in new and exciting ways. This field has been around since the 1980s and has kept growing ever since, but why did it become so popular? As mentioned by Ki Karou in “Back to the Future: 3D Printing and the Future of Math Education”,

“Although the field of 3D printing has its roots in the 1980s, it surged in popularity recently thanks to decreased costs (printers can be found in the thousand dollar range) and people’s astonishingly creative uses of the devices. News articles regularly come out with new uses for 3D printers, from the 3D printed car to the 3D printed wrench used in the space station, and even the exciting possibility of printing human organs.” – Ki Karou

In Mike Lawler’s blog post,  “Ten 3D Printing math projects to help students explore math, he shares a collection of projects that explore a wide range of mathematical ideas with some interesting applications. Some exciting examples include seeing the relationship between geometry and shadows (inspired by Henry Segerman), using tilings as cookie cutters (inspired by Laura Taalman) and revising the volume of a sphere.

As a fan of differential equations, I was excited to read the article, Riding the “Wave” of Affordable 3D Printing”, where Nate Barlow, Colin Huber, and Olivier Montmayeur share the applications of 3D printing in Partial Differential Equations (PDEs). Here they provide examples of problems in which 3D printing lends itself nicely to classroom explorations and also how it might be useful to introduce ideas in research groups.

“Currently, we are using 3D prints in lectures for demos, for workshops, and also for homework problems. When introducing our research to new group members or talking at conferences, 3D prints have become the perfect tool for showing the difference between a linearly stable, convectively unstable, and absolutely unstable response to a localized initial disturbance”.

Not only students benefit from 3D printing magic. It also can help mathematicians understand structures that otherwise might be missed. In his article, “Can’t Imagine Shapes in 4 Dimensions? Just Print Them Out”, Luke Whelan explains,

“For the past couple of decades, mathematicians have increasingly relied on digital imaging to see complex shapes. But certain characteristics and symmetries are just not obvious until you look at a physical representation. A digital rendering, even one you can rotate, is, after all, a just a series of 2-D images. When trying to study a shape in 4-D space, much less 3-D, even more is lost.” – Luke Whelan

Also, 3D printing has been used to replace or support coral reef systems in that have been affected by bleaching or by other weather events,  manufacturing medical equipment and surgical devices that are adapted to patients needs, and many more applications.

Another important benefit of 3D printing is to make math accessible to those who have visual impairments. As Chelsea Cook, a physicist,  shares in her 2013 TedTalk, using 3D models made mathematics come to life in her Multivariable Calculus class.

“When I took Multivariable Calculus a couple of years ago, I developed a partnership with Chris Williams from the dreams laboratory. We worked together to create three-dimensional models of the shapes and graphics needed for the coursework. Again, the models made the math come alive. I could perceive every detail of a model much clearer than a tactile graphic. I made the shape work for me to reach my goal.” – Chelsea Cook

If you want to get ideas on how to introduce 3D printing in your classroom, Jamie Back’s blog post, “How I Introduce 3D Printing in My Classes” provides a great guide. In her article, “The Resurgence of 3D Printers in Modern Learning Environments”, Erika Gimbel provides many free resources for educators who are interested in incorporating 3D printing to their curriculum such as,

  • MakerBots  free 3D-printing educators’ guidebook with STEM-based learning projects, an educators community forum, and more than 100 lessons on its educational website, Thingiverse.
  • The STEM:IT curriculum created by VariQuest, whose project-based lessons include coding and 3D design and provide instructors poster templates, 3D print files, and step-by-step guides.
  • Robo, which designs 3D printers for classrooms, teamed up with to offer K–12 educators printers with more than 240 built-in 3D STEM lessons.

Whether you are an enthusiast, teacher, or researcher there are many wonderful resources out there to get started. MakerGirl,  a non-profit organization that inspires girls to be active in STEM, mentions that are many apps, toys, and websites that promote STEM learning. In a recent post, they highlight some of their favorites including Morphi, Thinkercad, Toybox which provide ways to learn 3D design. Also, there are many geometry labs and makerspaces around the world that can serve as a resource. Are you ready to join the revolution?

Do you have suggestions of topics you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter (@MissVRiveraQ)


About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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