Introduction: 3D Designs for Teaching Science

About: I'm a physics and chemistry teacher at a public school in Maryland and active in my local science teacher's association. I love building things and am teaching myself how to use arduino in electronics projects…

As a physics, chemistry, and biology teacher I have always dreamed of having a 3D printer to make manipulatives for the students, and to allow the students to print parts to use in their research project designs.

So here are just a few items that I wish I could make sets of for my students to help them understand science better!

Step 1: Periodic Trends of Elements

In chemistry there are several variables that have clear trends across and down the periodic table such as:

electronegativity, electron affinity, ionization energy, atomic radius, and ionic radius

To help student visualize the trends, it would be great to have a 3D physical model that is twenty squares for the first twenty elements with the element symbol on top and the name of the height of the block determined by the relative magnitude of the value for the variable for that element.

With my own 3D printer I can make one for each lab group to examine and compare, and expand to make a larger model that includes the transition metals as well.

To make the models, I can use Sketch Up. For a model of a periodic trend like atomic radius here are the steps:
  • Look up the values for the atomic radius of each of the elements.
  • Draw a square for each of the elements.
  • Use the push-pull tool to raise the height of each square by the correct relative height.

This will make a simple block style model, depending on how the final product looks I can add an indented element symbol to the top of each rectangle and an indented label on the bottom of the model to indicate that it is a model for atomic radius. I can also print in with different colors for metals, nonmetals, and metalloids.

Step 2: Other Science Models...

For my chemistry students I could...
make space filling molecules of the chemicals that we most commonly use in our laboratory activities. I could also make a set of models to represent each of the basic molecular shapes so students can touch the shapes and really see how different the Lewis structures and actual element shapes can be. There are quite a few good drawings of simple molecules available in the 3D warehouse within Sketch-up that are ready and waiting to print.

One of the toughest things to convey to students is the shapes of the electron orbitals. I could make a set of s, p, d. and f orbitals to start. Then I could make a set of 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s to show them how the size changes with the energy level. There are several great examples of orbitals in the 3D warehouse ready to print as well!

For my biology students I could...
design and print models of each of the stages of mitosis and then meiosis. Students can then look at each one and see what is happening to the chromosomes throughout the process. I could print pieces of an interactive set that uses magnets to snap to their correct orientations. I can offer these pieces to students to use for a stop motion animation explanation that demonstrates their understanding of each of these two processes, their similarities, and their differences. I can also design and print plant and animal cell models for the same type of student interaction. This would be such an improvement over a teacher demonstration of a single model. I can make a model of each of the components that make up a cell membrane so students can see how the cell membrane actually works instead of just looking at pictures.

For student research projects in any subject...
Here's the fun part....

With a 3D printer on hand, students can have a quick lesson in 3D modeling and design visual aides for what we are learning and print them!

When students are making stop motion animation sequences to explain process, they can make some of the objects they move around in their animations with the 3D printer and have a truly custom 3D object for their video. Whether they are explaining what happens when sodium chloride dissolves in water compared to sugar dissolving in water, or what is happening between two surfaces when one object is dragged along a surface and a frictional force results they can improve their projects with a quick design and printing because if they need 10 of an object for the animation they need any design once and then send it to print!

Students could also design and test the size of components they need to make for their individual research projects. They can print molds and then use those molds to make pieces of other materials.

The possibilities are endless once a 3D printer is available for the classroom its just a matter of creativity and a small fund to supply the printing material. The sky is the limit! The tutorials I found online for Sketch Up were easy to follow and now I'm hooked on drawing models for my students. 

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