Art teachers have pleaded with school boards for decades about how crucial their subject is to student education.

Now, the growing use of 3D printers in schools is showing how the visual arts foster the creativity and spatial thinking necessary for making science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education into something three dimensional you can touch.

With imagination, STEM skills and the sense of proportion, form and location in space that art education provides, it’s possible to fabricate a surprising array of objects on 3D printers. Products range from houses and solar panels to food and pharmaceuticals.

When creating small items on a 3D printer, students learn to plan three dimensionally on computers. After receiving digital data — such as measurements — a 3D printer builds an object layer by layer from materials including powdered nylon plastic. The finished product reveals whether the specifications matched what the student imagined.

Even creation of a key fob or a game figurine can teach a kid lots about spatial visualization.

Understanding Spatial Thinking

The ability to navigate the world and your surrounding space is called spatial thinking. It is a skill we use in many situations from events of everyday living to professional work. Spatial thinking includes abilities such as:

  • Parallel parking a car
  • Estimating short distances so you can move around a room without bumping into objects
  • Picturing and making your way around large places by reading maps
  • Understanding geography well enough to create maps (Google Earth is a spatial thinking product)
  • Designing physical structures ranging from tiny houses to huge international airports
  • Reading radiographic pictures, including brain scans and x-rays of broken bones
  • Creating product packaging and
  • Animating figures using computer software.

It is easy to make the connection between art and the work of animators, architects and cartographers. Yet the sense of proportion and perspective learned in art classes also aids engineers, medical technologists and professionals in many fields.

For both students and professionals, manipulation of images representing objects in 3D design software requires a 365-degree awareness of the object from front to back and top to bottom. Adults begin teaching children this kind of thinking early on in a natural way during playtime with construction toys, including blocks.

Learning in a Hands-On Style

In the past 15 years, public school teaching has been dominated by preparation for standardized testing. Even in kindergarten, little class time has been available for hands-on projects.

A resurrection of hands-on learning through the worldwide maker movement — including digital tinkering that is driving invention in high technology — has inspired schools to add an “A” for “art” to the STEM acronym.

Many K-12 schools are creating STEAM labs that include computers, 3D printers, art supplies and all sorts of materials for do-it-yourself projects.

According to TechCrunch, education — from kindergarten through college — is “the primary driver behind innovation and development in the 3D printing industry.”

Changing the World with 3D Education

TechCrunch notes that “3D printing and education are changing the world together.” The website could add that 3D printers are also helping students to make the world a better place.

Here are some examples of ways in which students are using 3D printers to help others.

Aid for Visually Impaired. Sixteen middle school girls from North Carolina learned about 3D printing for the first time at an education summer camp where they created models of the moon’s surface. The Salisbury Post reports that they made the models to help students with limited vision study astronomy.

School Expense Reduction. High school honors student Tanner Hauger of Uptown, Pennsylvania, saved more than $10,000 for his school district, according to 3DPrint.Com. He did it by using a 3D printer to create replacement parts for the district’s heating and fire protection system. The parts no longer are available except as part of larger components.

Inexpensive Prosthetics Production. A team of high school students from the Ben Barber Career and Technology Academy in Mansfield, Texas, created a 3D-printed, prosthetic hand for a man who lost four fingers to a wood chipper. TechCrunch reports that they did this through the e-NABLE web project, which focuses on making prosthetics affordable for people worldwide.

Oil Spill Remediation. City X Project is an international education workshop that uses 3D printers to teach older elementary students how to engineer creative solutions to problems. The Chicago Tribune reported that elementary school students brainstormed and designed a number of ideas at a City X workshop in Glenview, Illinois. One 10-year-old invented a tool to clean up river oil spills.

Cold Case Tool. Graduate students studying sculpture at the New York Academy of Art are using 3D printed skulls to help the New York City Office of the Medical Examiner solve cold cases.

Speaking Up for Creativity in STEM

Mary Beth Hertz is a high school art and technology teacher in Pennsylvania. Writing at Edutopia, she notes that STEM education “is the marrying and undeniable connection between science, technology, engineering and math.”

Math is used in all of these subject areas and in art. Two ways Hertz emphasizes the importance of art in STEM learning are the way creative endeavors motivate students and the need for creative people in engineering, math, science and technological professions.

Hertz asserts that “if we’re not showing students the creativity in what they’re doing and how it allows them to explore their own creative interests, then we’re not giving them the full picture of what it means to work in a STEM field.”

Riveting Student Attention

Los Angeles middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron, who specializes in English language acquisition, says that 3D printers help “fire neurons that have not been stimulated by standardized education.”

It’s important to know that Wolpert-Gawron describes herself as not being very handy and being more of a Shakespeare geek than a technology lover. Yet due to a job shift, she now spends half of each day helping teachers with matters including adaptation to new technologies.

Initially skeptical about the value of 3D printing, Wolpert-Gawron is now a convert. Also writing at Edutopia, she says, “I cannot describe the satisfaction both the students and I felt when seeing an object from their brain appear on the heated bed of the machine before them.”

Wolpert-Gawron notes that her school’s 3D printer holds such a magnetic attraction for students that many spend their lunchtime watching it “in awe.” “I bet I could sell tickets to watch the thing print,” she concludes.