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How to Teach 3D Printing To Young Makers

Wanjun Zhang
Ed Tech
Feb 21, 2018

3D Printing and Design empowers learners of all ages to explore their creativity and bring their imagination to life.

Having taught 3D Printing workshops at my local makerspace, library, community centers and schools for some time, I'd like to share my experience, intro lecture, students' first 3D Printing project, tips and tricks in the hopes that you may find it useful in bringing 3D Printing workshops to your school, community center, library, or maker space. 

My goal is to show that 3D Printing and Design can be for everyone, and the learning process really does put the "A" in "STEAM".

Tools and Consumables, Classroom Set-Up

I do variations of this workshop for mostly high school students, and adapt for elementary, middle school and adults. I prefer to teach no more than 15 students at a time, 20 with an assistant. This workshop requires at least two hours to allow for the completion of the first 3D Printing project.

Tools and Consumables:

FDM 3D Printer

I personally love the Makerbot Replicator2, but recently we've been using Prusas to good result although they don't travel as well. Whatever you have just prep to ensure reliable printing during the workshop. Speaking from experience it's a little embarrassing when the printer's proximity sensor refuses to trigger or the filament jams in the middle of a demo.


For the intro presentation, showing videos/pics


1 to 4 students per computer

Autodesk Fusion 360

Installed on all computers, or if the students are younger use

Printed Project Guide

one per student

Rulers and Pencils

Sample prints with visible infill pattern

Classroom Setup

Ideally a projector, and each student to their own computer with internet connection. Students are grouped together if the space is too small or if we do not have enough computers. If sharing, I briefly go over expected behavior with's Pair Programming video -  and assign navigator and driver roles.

Optionally have students switch every so often to facilitate a collaborative learning experience for all.

The classroom management applies to educators as well, the expectation I set for myself is 1. never assume the student knows something already, and 2. never take over a student's keyboard and mice. If a student doesn't know where the escape key is on the keyboard or the undo button in the program, just point!

I also set the positive expectation that every student would be able to complete his or her own project.  

The Lecture:

This is a quick presentation I give before we do 3D modeling for their first 3D Printing project. If I'm running short on time or if students are in elementary school I skip the presentation and simply talk through a youtube video of a Chocolate 3D Printer and pictures of Adidas 3D Printed soles.

The goal isn't for everyone to become 3D Printing experts but to empower students with the knowledge and terminology surrounding 3D Printing. When we understand key concepts and how it works, we are able to explore and create and devise our own solutions with 3D Printing technology. At the end of the day a 3D Printer is simply a tool that we learn how to use, just like a paintbrush, power drill, scissors, glue gun, and so on. More often than not 3D Printing is the thing that gets you to the thing, but not the final thing.

What is 3D Printing?

3D Printing is a way of making something by stacking thin layers of material on top of each other.

Beyond the dictionary definition of 3D Printing, it is also an additive manufacturing process. A digital blueprint, called the 3D Model, is made into an object by a machine. Our 3 Dimensional digital blueprint is "sliced" into layers and sent to our printer to be made into a 3D Print. When we use a regular paper printer, we have a digital picture or word file from the computer.

At this point I'll have everyone gather around the 3D Printer to see how it works. Cut off a little bit of PLA to pass around and tell students that PLA is a plastic made from corn. 

The plastic is melted down in the extruder and comes out of nozzle and extruded along a path - first an outline, then infill. Each layer is stacked up higher and higher to form a print. The extrusion process can be thought of as a pressurized squeezing out. It's kind of like when you make icing and squeeze it out of a corner of a Ziploc bag to decorate a cupcake. Except instead of using our hands, our 3D printer is programmed to move up and down, forwards and backwards and left to right to make precise specific shapes.

I also explain the FDM process - Fused Deposition Modeling. Fused means it has to stick together, deposition means to deposit, put down, and modeling means to make a shape. The FDM process entails that we cannot to start a 3D print in midair. First layer adhesion is key, that's why we have blue tape or a heated bed or elmer's glue or even hairspray on our print bed!

The layer by layer 3D Printing process can be used with items other than PLA plastic - chocolate, pancakes, clay.


It's important to offer historical context. FDM 3D Printing was invented then patented in 1983, and mostly used by Research and Development teams that could afford it at hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2009, the patent expired and FDM 3D Printers became more and more affordable - $2000 versus $200,000. Today, a 3D Printer can be had for as little as $300.

Why 3D Print

3D printing offers us the opportunity to make mistakes faster. When we are designing physical parts we are able to quickly produce it with the 3D printer and gain immediate feedback of what works and what doesn't, and then quickly update and iterate our design. Our parts are also manufactured locally, without access to expensive tools and expert fabricators. 3D printing also allows us to manufacture custom objects. It's kind of crazy that our hips are on a fluid mosaic scale in terms of size and shape but hip replacements are offered in small, medium, large.

Why Not 3D Print

3D printing can be extremely slow, especially for large objects with complicated geometry. The young industry also means that consumer-level 3D Printers requires a lot of attention with a high learning curve. Parts will also shrink just ever so slightly, but not evenly across XYZ dimensions.

Who Uses 3D Printers?

I give examples of everyone from aerospace engineers to fashion designers to students. Feel free to pick and choose.

Wanjun Zhang
Wanjun is an educator, creative technologist, and photographer based in Houston Texas.

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