No. Your 3D Printer Does Not Make You Innovative.


Few will disagree that over the past few years the notion of 3D printing in schools has gained incredible steam. It's certainly one of the latest bandwagons. Scan social media on any given day and you'll find end users pridefully holding the latest "cool" print in the palm of their hand, hashtagging some synonyms of "innovation." Many times, the social sharer touts their own innovative ideas, how the tool is a "game changer," or how their printer is "revolutionizing" learning. Continue to observe, and one can easily see the notion or the "understanding" that because they're 3D printing, innovation is thriving in their classroom, school, or district. Simply put, using a 3D printer (even daily) does not make one "innovative."

Let me be clear. 3D printers can absolutely be a conduit to providing students with high level, personal and authentic learning experiences. They can also be a colossal waste of money. 

Which type of printer is in your school or district?

Traveling the country and spending an incredible amount of time with educators from coast to coast, I've seen four main types of 3D printers currently in schools. These printers are listed below, as are brief references to their cost, utilization, and ROI - Return on Instruction, a concept that Eric Sheninger and I share in Learning Transformed(ASCD, 2017).

  1. "The Bandwagon" Printer
    These printers can often be spotted from a mile away. Walk into the shared common area where it resides and you'll see the remnants from its ribbon cutting ceremony. These printers get hyped up from the moment they are delivered by UPS and often feel special early on as staff members ooh and ah over the new arrival. After the first few months however, these printers get lonely and only receive the occasional hello. Their party invitations become forgotten.
    Cost: HIGH
    Usage: HIGH at first, Then LOW
    Return on Instruction (ROI): MINIMAL

  2. "The Guinea Pig" Printer
    These printers are typically found in one particular classroom or have a single parent or guardian who utilizes it 99% (if not 100%) of the time. These particular printers are used regularly and materials get reordered often. The issue? These printers serve as toys for the adults, not as tools for student learning. In the vicinity of these printers you'll notice downloaded directions for the latest "cool" print, an open browser displaying where the 3D code was copied and pasted from online, a cup of coffee that has been there for a few days, and a myriad of random objects 3D printed in various colors that line nearby shelves. Like a 4th grade guinea pig, these pets often get taken home on the weekends by their caregivers so that their garage can be converted into a personal weekend makerspace. Pictures of these Guinea Pig Printers and their Dollar Store-esque prints get plastered all over social media touting their innovative experiences.
    Cost: HIGH
    Useage: HIGH; albeit by staff
    Return on Instruction (ROI): MINIMAL (Sometimes zero.)

  3. "The Popstar" Printer
    Similar to the Bandwagon Printer, these printers often receive a welcome party, or at least a faculty meeting happy hour. After the celebration, these printers actually do receive a regular workout. The issue? Student learning is minimal as students spend the majority of the time admiring the popstar on the pedestal. As seen with these 3D printers, full classes of students can venture on a field trip to the library or makerspace. The experience will begin with a teacher sharing how today is a very special day because the students get to use the school's new "cool" 3D printer. For the next 45 minutes, students will ooh and ah over the print process. Once complete, the teacher will pull the newly printed lion - the building's mascot - out of the printer and hold it high. The scene is eerily similar to a moment in Disney's Lion King where Rafiki holds up baby Simba for the world to see. What do students learn during these popstar sightings? Almost nothing, except for the fact that 3D printers can print more than text on paper.
    Cost: HIGH
    Useage: MEDIUM
    Return on Instruction (ROI): MINIMAL

  4. "The MVP" Printer
    Finally, a printer that's the real deal and one to write home about. The MVP, or the Most Valuable Printer, is used by staff in ways that cultivate personal and authentic learning experiences for students. These printers understand their role as a team player. They get to share the reward for the hard work that the learner has completed. They understand that they are the finish line after the marathon has been run. These printers get to provide the trophy for the high level, personal and authentic learning that has occurred during the season. MVP Printers being used in schools are worth every penny. They are viewed as a conduit for learning, not as the learning experience itself.
    Useage: HIGH (Vast majority of use is by students)
    Return on Instruction (ROI): MEDIUM to HIGH

The vast majority of learning with 3D printers occurs during the design and modification process, not during the printing process itself.

One of my all-time favorite stories around the effective use of edtech, that also shares the power of "The MVP" Printer, has become known as "The Hand Challenge." To be clear, the story of the Hand Challenge is NOT about 3D printers. The story is about the lives of children that have forever been changed. It's about students that were empowered by their teacher to change the world...and change the world they have.



I'm honored to call Chris Craft a good friend. Chris is an amazing family man of integrity who I admire for so many reasons. His ability to empower students to solve problems is invigorating. His laser focus on learning is a model for what our service to kids is all about. He's also the teacher that empowered his students to dream up the Hand Challenge; something over 1,000 schools now participate in.

From the Hand Challenge website:"
Officially, the class is called Introduction to S.T.E.M., but unofficially it's about helping kids find the interests and passions that can propel them through life. We invent, we problem-solve, we learn, and we have a lot of fun. Above all, we're striving to embody the notion that life is not about us. We work towards solving problems in our community and school, such as helping children that do not have two functioning hands.

The Prosthetic Kids project began when Carson, Corbyn, and McKenzie got fired up about the chance to really impact another child's life. You can read more about their story on" - Chris Craft

Like many before him, Chris could have simply enabled his students to leverage the new 3D printer to print items similar to the school mascot. Even worse, he could have given them all the exact recipe and directed them to print identical objects, by downloading, copying, and essentially hitting print. Instead, Chris empowered his learners to design and create, while simultaneously changing the world and the lives of other children in it.

Innovation is not about tools. It's about people, processes, and pedagogy.

... and don't get me started on the way some robots are being used or how others are glorifying particular Lego walls in hallways. More to come...

All for the kids we serve,

Note: For a great book on innovation, check out "The Innovator's Mindset" by my good friend George Couros.