Professor to bring 3D printers into classroom

As technology continues to evolve, so does its integration with education. A professor at Henderson State University will soon bring 3D printers into K-12 classrooms to help turn students’ ideas into reality.

Dr. Matthew Sutherlin, assistant professor and chair of curriculum and instruction for Teachers College, Henderson, used a $5,000 grant from the Arkansas Department of Education to purchase three 3D printers, along with handheld 3D scanners, and other supplies.

Sutherlin will provide professional development for teachers, but he also plans to introduce the technology to students in public schools through an afterschool program.

“This technology will start to permeate the curriculum,” Sutherlin said. “It’s really based on that concept of project-based learning. These are tools that can be used to facilitate the process of doing research, looking at a real world problem, and developing solutions.”

3D printing is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file using a printer similar to a common inkjet printer. A 3D object is created through an additive process by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Instead of ink, a plastic filament is used.

“You have a filament and a heated element at the top,” Sutherlin said. “The melted filament comes out through a nozzle, and just like a hot glue gun, it lays out a strip of plastic and keeps adding layers on top of each other.”

Virtual designs are created using computer-aided design (CAD) software, or with special scanners to make a 3D digital copy of an object. “Our handheld scanners will allow students to scan in their designs and print them out,” Sutherland said. “It can even scan a person’s entire body.”

Sutherlin said the goal is to integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with the arts to give students a hands-on experience.

“It’s a theory of learning that involves taking an idea and making something physical out of it,” he said. “I see it as being more of the ability to understand, from a conceptual and practical standpoint, where they can make their own ideas a reality. Maybe they want to make a cell phone cover. From a skills-based standpoint, they have to know the math and understand the engineering components.”

Sutherland said the process goes far beyond the notion of being able to print something that’s physical based on an idea. “We have to understand how it works,” he said. “And when we’re working with the students, it’s about stressing those components as much as it is about the ‘wow’ factor of the printers.”

The 3D printers vary in size and capabilities and can produce a wide range of products, ranging from utensils and replacement parts to musical instruments, automobile parts, and even human tissue.

An afterschool program at Arkadelphia and Fountain Lake public schools will start this fall.

“The students will work with different concepts – everything from green architecture to design thinking – to produce different inventions or ideas they have for architectural structures,” Sutherlin said.

The program will target grades 3-6. “We want to get them using this early so by the time they get to high school, they will have already had some experience with the technology,” he said.

At Henderson, professional development sessions with the printers will start this fall. They will also be used in arts integration and creative arts course, and will be a component of Henderson’s STEM Center. Sutherlin worked with Henderson’s STEM Center and Education Renewal Zone in writing the grant request.

Henderson’s physics department already uses two 3D printers for student projects in its Engineering Design course. A third printer will be purchased this summer.

“Our project this past spring was to design an autonomous robot capable of intelligently navigating a maze to extinguish a candle,” said Dr. Rick McDaniel, professor and chair of physics. “Many of the parts, including the wheels, were 3D printed.”