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Interdisciplinary projects using 3D printing
Uma Shankar Singh looks at the huge potential for using a 3-D printer to stimulate interdisciplinary project work.

Who would have known back in 1983 when Charles Hull invented the first prototype for 3D printing (stereolithography), that the process would evolve 3 decades later to such an extent that it would enable a range of innovative transdisciplinary learning opportunities for young people?

What is 3D printing?

You will have heard of 3D printing – but what does it involve?  Most commonly these days it is the process of building an object through depositing of successive layers of an ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastic or PLA material (polylactic acid) to make an object. The process involves heating of the raw material to form a 3D replica of a digital. STL file in shape and dimensions.

Designing cross-curricular learning goals

When it comes to the use of a technical innovation like 3-D printing across the curriculum, it is worth pausing to think about how it might fit in to your programme of study in order to get the most out of it. The key question is this: to what extent will the use of technology (in this case the 3D Printer) affect your planned learning experiences for the students?

Using the SAMR model

A useful tool to use as you reflect on this is the SAMR model designed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, which has become the standard way to analyse EdTech integration across the curriculum. It is especially important when it comes to conceptualizing projects that would serve interdisciplinary purposes. SAMR stands for





At one end of the scale are Substitution and Augmentation aspects of “SAMR” which involve uses where 3D printing can be directly applied to teaching certain concepts like the parts of a flower or a cross section of the earth, just to make things a bit clearer. However, like all technology, the printer can also be used at deeper level bringing about the Modification and Redefinition of a learning opportunity. This can be best achieved through backward designing a project involving, and starting with the Printer. Collaborative projects like designing an obstacle-avoiding car or creating an alarm system using 3D printing would achieve this as students not only have to think about the design of various aspects of the car or alarm system but also how it will achieve the required result using a programming language like C++. At this level, it essential that the project involves a real-life scenario which would encourage students to think creatively and out of the box. Once the purpose of the project is clearly defined, it’s easier to formulate the criteria the students would need to achieve to complete the project.

Grade 6 Physics and a Rube Goldberg (Heath Robinson) projects

At my current school, I found a great way to introduce Physics via a 3D printer by getting Grade 6 students to take part in designing ‘Rube Goldberg Projects’ – the kind of crazy fantasy machines designed to undertake simple tasks in a complex way. In the UK this kind of machine is usually called a ‘Heath Robinson Contraption’. Students designed parts for their projects using TinkerCad which is a very easy CAD application for forming shapes and designs of various sizes, which were later 3D printed. The simple machines that Rube Goldberg projects utilize can ideally be used to teach potential and kinetic energy, forces, momentum, etc.

Grade 7 and 8 Art and Design projects

Grade 7 at the International German School of Ho Chi Minh City also built 3D models of their favourite Bloxels characters using Magica Voxels which is an excellent application for rendering 2D pixel art images to 3D art for 3D printing. The objective of a Bloxels games is to teach coding through color coded blocks and using 3D characters was a great motivator for the students as they also knew they would have something physical in their hands to show to their parents at the end of the project.

Grade 8 students were involved in building 3D models of their favorite rooms in SketchUp for Web within set criteria. They applied various finishing materials, added in accessories and even designed the walls for the rooms on their computers while understanding some tricks to be used in order to accurately 3D print the model of their room.

Other ideas for transdisciplinary 3D printing

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Biotechnology is a rapidly growing in importance. A great way to integrate 3D printing projects at a high SAMR level can be to let students think of social and medical issues like people requiring prosthetic limbs, developing artificial organs or designing dental bridges.

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The printer can be used in a variety of ways and at different SAMR levels to introduce concepts like the structure of atoms, chemical bonding and sustainable development, when, for example aerospace designers are researching strong, durable plastics that are cheaper and more sustainable than traditional materials.

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When it comes to understanding landforms and ecosystems, a 3D printer can be a great resource that can let primary students’ piece together the world map, label different landforms and even construct sustainable environmentally friendly ecosystems that could contain various alternative man-made instruments for extracting different forms of energy.

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When it comes to Mathematics, a 3D printer can do wonders teaching fractals, symmetry, measurements and scaling. Students can be involved in creating models that shows them the importance of symmetry in designs, structures and even their own DNA. Scaling can be taught using models wherein one aspect of a design is enlarged while the other remains the same.

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Art and Design

When it comes to Art, the use of a 3D printer has endless possibilities. Dioramas, structure support systems, aesthetics, curves, lines, perspectives, shapes and color contrasts can be easily exhibited and taught using models created by 3D models.

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Middle school can be challenged to create their own musical instruments which might break the norms of a traditional instrument and perhaps combine features of various instruments they know. At a lower SAMR level, models of notes and other notation can also be made to made to explain how they are used.


Time to get printing!

In conclusion, a 3D printer is a great tool in hands of an ICT Teacher working in collaboration with a colleague. It has endless potential for teaching creativity and well as letting students become critical inquirers. The objective is to let students see those links between their learning in various disciplines and help them understand that they are not isolated subjects. In the process, we can all learn something useful about the SAMR model, which could well lead to more ambitious transdisciplinary planning with IT in the future.


Uma Shankar Singh is a Librarian, Digital Literacy Coach and teacher of IT. He likes to read about human psychology, photograph wildlife and landscapes and research on trending library topics. He can be contacted at or click his picture for his LinkedIn Profile. He currently teaches IT at the International German School in Ho Chi Minh City.


All images kindly provided by Uma.