Lincoln IU 12: Student designs take life through 3D printing

At Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, 3D printers aren’t just gadget makers. They are essential tools in teaching design, “moving kids from being problem solvers to problem finders.”

“A key component of design thinking is empathy,” says IU 12 STEM Coordinator Ben Smith. “Students learn to put themselves in someone’s shoes. Research involves interviewing people to find the problems they face, and digging deep enough to find a solution.”

Effective, balanced STEM education allows students to explore four components – create, build, design, and code – but Smith and IU 12 Director of Educational Technology Jared Mader noticed that design learning was lacking among IU 12 schools. The teachers they trained to use 3D printers wanted opportunities to show off their students’ prowess. So, Smith and Mader created the Student 3D Design Challenge.

The first challenge, held in December 2016, convened 24 teams from elementary, middle, and high schools. Students were tasked with building a boat that could carry a Lego captain and Lego cargo.
“We told kids the odds, that some of their prints were not going to work,” said Smith. “That’s the nature of 3D printing. We did have two failures. There were a few tears.”

But several teams got especially creative, incorporating Lego elements into their designs for stability. 3D printing is revolutionizing STEM learning by allowing students to think up problem-solving products and build inexpensive prototypes, Smith notes. A 3D printer “is really just a fancy hot glue gun” that brings student designs to life.

Schools are now so enthusiastic about the twice-yearly challenges that some are choosing their teams through intramural competitions. The emphasis on design learning supports IU 12’s simultaneous development of a “STEM ecosystem” among area businesses and civic groups, promoting economic growth by giving students experiences needed in the local job market.

“It does create a lot of enthusiasm for STEM,” says Smith. “Access to STEM learning is one of our goals, and we want to create opportunities for everybody.”

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