How Can Teachers Use a 3-D Printer in Class? 5th Grade Class Used It for Service

By Madeline Will — April 26, 2017 3 min read
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There’s a 4-year-old girl out there who has an orange-and-purple prosthetic hand that was 3-D printed by a class of 5th graders.

That’s the kind of authentic learning students don’t get in textbooks, says Jayda Pugliese, a 5th grade math and science teacher at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Philadelphia. Last school year, after her students had raised money for electrical snap circuits, she and her class brainstormed what they should raise money for next. They decided on “something really big"—a 3-D printer for the classroom.

It took a month to raise the money—about $4,100—through the crowdfunding website DonorsChoose. And then, Pugliese (who won the 2016-17 Milken Educator Award) started brainstorming about all the possibilities.

“A lot of what I learned about a 3-D printer came off YouTube,” she said. “I was learning with my students, we were learning together.”

3-D printing has become a popular “maker” tool for schools, although some educators have expressed caution.

But teachers say the benefits are many: Students learn how to problem solve, have opportunities to be creative, and learn mathematical concepts like scale and accurate measurements.

Once Pugliese became more adept at using the 3-D printer, she decided to tie the project to service learning—her class located a little girl in Philadelphia who was born without a hand.

Prosthetics for children are often not covered by insurance since the user is growing so rapidly, and 3-D printing has emerged as a cheap and easy solution. The hand cost about $20 to make, and the project authentically engaged the 5th graders, who printed all the joints, fingers, and connectors, Pugliese said.

“When we were doing this project, you saw them realize that they were helping someone else. It became so real to them—kids started crying,” she said. “It’s making them understand that the world is more than what they see.”

Because the hand was going to be used by a real person, the students took the project seriously, printing out multiple attempts at fingers until they were sure everything would work.

“They took responsibility for the project—they don’t take responsibility for a lot of things,” she said.

In addition to learning math skills like calculating measurements, Pugliese said the 3-D printer project has taught her students how to make a business plan and sales pitches by raising money for materials for the 3-D printer.

And now, her students, who are mostly low-income, feel more confident about using the technology, Pugliese said.

“This year, they authentically have taken over the printer,” she said. “They know how to troubleshoot, change colors.”

The students finished the hand in March, and Pugliese hopes to have her class print a prosthetic hand for someone in the community once a year.

Image courtesy of Jayda Pugliese

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.