3D Printed Teaching Models

3D printing is a natural way to develop tactile models. We’ve taught a lot of people how to use 3D printers, and we have developed several books of 3D printable science and math projects. But we know that it can be a challenging learning curve for anyone, and we’re trying to make it a little easier for teachers in general and TVIs in particular. Here is a brief summary of different ways of tackling getting yourself started with 3D printed models. There’s a resource list at the end with links we mention in this post. 

Designing models and printing them yourself

First, you can develop them yourself. We’ve found in our development, though, that it takes time and effort to create a good model, and you need to learn a 3D CAD program. We’ve found it is best to consider first what you are trying to convey. It’s easy to get lost in a lot of detail, but sometimes a simple abstraction is better than one that is too complex. It’s like good writing. Sometimes a simple jargon-free paragraph is better than one with every if, and, but and technicality. Feedback from TVI friends has led us to feel that it is best to avoid printing Braille on models, since it is hard to tell a label from a model feature. 

Learning to 3D print is like learning to cook. The problem is that everyone wants to make a multi-tier wedding cake right off the bat! To make your life simpler:

  • Invest a bit of time in learning what makes a print easier to create. Good design can go a long way to helping you avoid printer finickiness.
  • Stick to printers that use spools of filament and materials that are easy to work with (PLA is a good beginner material). Printers that use trays of liquid resin can produce more detail, but they involve a lot more chemistry-lab type processing versus filament.
  • Buy a printer based on reviews, not on price. Some cheap printers work well, and some expensive ones do not. 

The state of the art is such that printers in the price range accessible to TVIs are not “print and forget.” There’s at least a bit of adjustment for what you are actually making, the material, and a few other things (just like there would be if you were cooking something). 

Printing with a service bureau

There are 3D printing services that will print a model for you. However, this tends to be an expensive proposition. Most services will give you an online quote, but typical cost for a fist-sized model will be $30-$100, depending on a lot of things. 

Using pre-designed models

There are a lot of databases out there of 3D printable models. The free databases have some great models, but, since anyone can post a model, some are either factually wrong in what they present and/or will not print well. Thus, a bit of curation is required.  For printability, see if there are notes from people who actually printed the model. 

To help teachers get past this, we have been developing modules that describe a science or math concept, with associated open-source models written in the free 3D CAD program, OpenSCAD. For example, the flower model shown here is one of the variations we have in a model that can be tweaked to model various plants. 

White 3d printed flower displaying individual petals spirally out from the center with approximately 13 levels.

This photo shows models of various World War II era wings. The wings are on stands that allow them to be placed in front of a fan. If you put the model on a postal scale and check its weight before and after the fan is turned on (shown in this final photo), the difference will be the lift generated by the wing. Instant wind tunnel! Both the flower and the wing models are in the first volume of our 3D Printed Science Projects books. 

Photo of multiple models in various colors of 3D printed WWII era airplane wings on stands.

Photo of Rich standing with his hand on the box fan that is blowing on a 3D printed model of WWII wing which is sitting on a postal scale.

Collaborating with school makerspaces

For several years, we’ve moderated a Google Group where TVIs can post requests for models they would like to see designed, and teachers with makerspaces and kids needing projects can claim these projects. For a long time, we had TVIs with requests, but not a lot of designers. We have been fortunate lately that there has been some energy again on the design side. (We aren’t asking for designers to create and ship physical 3D prints, but to design and post them freely.) We would love to see more traffic on that group! Come and check it out. 

Teaching with tactile models 

We have also come to realize that having 3D models for many or most of the concepts in a subject can enable different ways of teaching. We have a few end to end math courses in development - stay tuned, and watch our website for developments! 

Resources

Our website, with links to our courses, books, projects and events:

Our Perkins webinar:

Our books:

Our google group: 

Project that created it initially:

Model databases:

DIAGRAM 3D printing resources and links:

3D Printed Teaching Models