Using 3D Printing For Stem in Higher Education

Elana Reiser, Professor of Math at St. Joseph’s College and member of the MakerBot Educators program, has a passion for combining math with pop culture. So much so, she actually wrote the book on it: Teaching Mathematics Using Popular Culture: Strategies for Common Core Instruction from Film and Television.

Her unique talent for increasing classroom excitement on classically intimidating math lessons inspired her to explore another tool – 3D printing. It has obvious applications for subjects like design and engineering, biology or physics, but what sort of value can a 3D printer offer to college level math curriculum?

Lots of subjects lend themselves to learning in different modalities, like visual and auditory learning. Math is more difficult. Educators are always innovating new formats to their lesson plans in order to tap into different learning styles, but how do you give a physical or visual component to an equation? Ever innovative, Reiser has developed strategies that do just that with a new instructional book that interweaves 3D printing and math, entitled 3D Printing in the K-12 Mathematics Classroom: A Beginner’s Guide for Teachers.

We sat down with Elana to ask her about how she implemented 3D printing in her math courses.

MakerBot: When did you first see the potential for 3D printing in your classes?

Elana: I run a math interest program for middle and high school math teachers and wanted to teach something on 3D printing but didn’t know much about it. So I signed up for the MakerBot makeathon last summer and learned how to use the technology. The challenge was to work in groups to create curriculum – ours created a lesson plan that had students design a roller coaster by thinking about the curve in terms of functions before finally printing it.

MakerBot: We see a lot of 3D printers used at the university level, but rarely for math. How did you weave it into the coursework, and what do your students think?

Elana: I’ve put 3D printing in both of my math courses, all the students love it. I use the cryptography lesson I designed on the first day to give them something fun and tangible. I also use one on modular arithmetic in my number theory class. Giving students something in their hands to rethink a problem can be especially useful for challenges that tend to be all cognitive and not very physical.

MakerBot: Has it been hard to create or find new 3D printing content?

Elana: Before this semester, there really wasn’t that much content available or easily findable, but once Thingiverse Education went up, it’s a great place to go for lessons.

MakerBot: What do you think is the biggest barrier to wider adoption of 3D printing in education?

Elana: One barrier to introducing more 3D lessons is probably the time it takes to print, but on a university schedule it’s not really an issue because we don’t meet every day. So if I have students design on Thursday, I can print their designs in time for our next session on Tuesday.

MakerBot: Have you seen any results from your introduction of 3D printing?

Elana: It has the biggest impact on student engagement – they’re always alert and talking about it when I bring 3D printed objects into class.

MakerBot: Do students pick up the new technology quickly? What about general design and CAD skills?

Elana: Even though my students are digital natives, Facebook and all, it doesn’t automatically make them good at 3D design. Maybe they catch on quicker, knowing where buttons are and what they might do, but they need a little bit of training. But because they find it so interesting, I can introduce them to Tinkercad and have them design something as homework and they all enjoy the assignment.

For example, I wrote a lesson on the Pythagorean theorem, where students had to design objects in TinkerCad at ratios that proved the theory. Teaching TinkerCad went really well, they picked it up in just over an hour.

Thanks for the tips, Elana!

Elana is part of a growing movement of educators developing and sharing 3D printing content and best practice with one another. Make sure to check out her book 3D Printing in the K-12 Mathematics Classroom: A Beginner’s Guide for Teachers.

For classroom-ready lesson plans, check out Thingiverse Education.
To learn more about how to become a MakerBot Educator visit 

Reprint from Makerbot