A travesty

Schools have top 3D-printing kit, but kids aren’t allowed to use it

By Kitty Knowles 30 January 2017

Our schools' 3D-printing equipment is growing dust. That's terrible news for the future.

3D-printing has the power to change the world.

It means products can be totally personalised and printed on-demand, and is already being used by the likes of Adidas and Wonderluk to combat the environmental impact of fast fashion.

In the health space it’s transforming life for people with prosthetic limbs, we’re 3D-printing genitals for the transgender community, and even ‘bioprinting’ skin to help the 11m burn victims each year.

When it comes to creativity it’s an inspiring new medium for artists, architects, and even chefs.

In short: 3D-printing is the manufacturing process of the future, and our kids should be taught about it. But right now our educational institutions are missing the mark.

A 3D-printed salad.

School have the tools, but are falling short

It’s promisingly clear that schools have tried to embrace 3D-printing technology: up to 60% of schools now own a 3D-printer, a new report reveals.

The survey, which polled teachers from North America and Europe (as well as from around the world), found that half of all secondary school students have access to this kit, with a particularly high adoption across the STEAM subjects (science, technology, engineering, art, and maths).

But it’s not all good news: a shocking 87% of schools only offer restricted access to this inspiring new technology, with kit often locked away, or used by educators “on students’ behalf”.

Ultimately there’s little point in schools owning these tools if students aren’t allowed to use it.

3D-printed Chanel suits.
3D-printed Chanel suits.

Restricting access isn’t justified

The most obvious reason to prevent kids from going wild on 3D-printing equipment is money. Large machines cost hundreds of pounds, require expensive materials, and must therefore be run by a school technician.

Despite the fact that 90% of students are comfortable using 3D-printing, letting them do so is simply too big a financial risk.

But this is no excuse.

There are many smaller affordable 3D-printers available today that student can easily use independently, and for the most part using technology is a matter of training and trust.

“The choice of 3D-printer is important,” says Soner Ozenc a founder at London’s makersCafe. “It’s about choosing low-cost suppliers with a good online presence, that offer low-cost replacement parts.”

“The more local the better, as they can potentially send their staff for further support,” Ozenc explains. “Technicians should be able to fix problems if anything breaks down, with the help of online forum support and [the] online community.”

“The 3D-printer should allow students to mess around freely and get their hands dirty.”

Teaching teachers to enable their students

In fact experts across the board believe that training educators is vital, as they need the confidence to teach and trust students to operate 3D-printers themselves.

“You see a lot of schools spending a lot on equipment, but there’s little actually being spent on [the] tuition of educators,” former London Mayor for 3D Hubs Charlotte Downs told The Memo.

“Students are very capable, but teachers who don’t know how to use 3D-printing to its full potential, will do their students a disservice by not letting children use the machine.”

A event in London's iMaker store.

Selling printers with training in mind

iMakr, are a 3D-printer manufacturer who echo this view.

“The first step in getting schools comfortable in allowing student use on 3D printers is through educating the educators,” iMakr CEO Eric Savant told The Memo. “If teachers are comfortable with the technology, then they’ll be more relaxed with their students using the machines.”

Whenever iMakr sell a machine to a school, they encourage them to accept training for their staff. The company offers both training and free introduction classes on Tuesday and Thursdays evening at the iMakr’s east London store.

“If teachers act as a barrier to the technology, they’re probably depriving the school of its most advanced and creative users.”

Chris Verbrick, Managing Director Cinter.

Investing in the future

The way things stand, future generations simply won’t be equipped for the world they are entering.

“We’re going into a digital age where everyone can programme, everyone can make software, and everyone can can code, but there’s a skills gap forming where young people are not understanding the physical,” Downs told The Memo.

“Enough people aren’t coming into the 3D space, into physical engineering.”

A whopping 89% of teachers and technicians echo this sentiment: they are calling for better use of investment, and more support incorporating 3D-printing processes across the curriculum.

“Justifying investment of funds is about showing impact and demonstrating enhanced learning,” Chris Verbick, managing director at Cinter 3D-printing labs.

“Enhancing existing school projects that have already proven successful will allow teachers to show bigger impact: teachers can do it, students can do it – they need just a bit of help in getting there.”

It shouldn’t just be left to IT technicians to take the helm, either. “3D-printers should not be the sole domain of the IT staff,” said iMakr’s Savant.

“The more people on staff who know how to print, the wider the use.”

Schools better shape up – or everyone will miss out.