Introduction: Learning Tinkercad While Solving Problems: a Design Challenge Lesson

About: I am an engineering educator and mother of two little makers who loves developing new projects - both personally and for my children and students to work through.

Distance learning can be challenging - particularly for people who are new to this approach to teaching and specifically for fields that generally rely primarily on hands-on activities for instruction.

The forced remote learning situation caused by the pandemic has been, however, a great opportunity for teachers to be pushed out of our comfort zones to try something new. For me as an engineering teacher, that "new" was Tinkercad. While I had seen several Instructables using Tinkercad in the past, I was used to the 3D modeling software I had been working within my curriculum and had never taken the time to learn new software like Tinkercad.

This opportunity has been fantastic from this perspective because I have been able to learn this new program along with my students. I posed a design challenge to the students that was relevant and possible for everyone from my high school engineering students to my own young children who I am helping homeschool during this time to complete. The goal of this project was for students to become familiar with Tinkercad by trying to create a specific object. Therefore, this project approach could be used at any time - not simply during remote-learning induced by a pandemic!

Hopefully this Instructable will inspire you to branch out into Tinkercad with as much excitement as I have now that I realize it's potential!

Step 1: Understand the Design Challenge Assignment

The design challenge posed to students was simple: Familiarize yourself with Tinkercad by creating a simple model of a SOLUTION to a problem caused by the current pandemic.

These solutions can be silly or serious, but students should be able to explain why they have selected to make the models they create. For some students, creating and explaining their models almost seemed a bit cathartic, since it gave them an opportunity to vent a bit about their own frustrations or concerns with the pandemic and discuss how their ideas would help.

Want to use this lesson when it's not a pandemic? Here's another suggestion for a problem statement: Familiarize yourself with Tinkercad by creating a model of something that would make your day easier by solving a problem you face daily (such as your phone constantly falling out of your pocket or your hampster always getting stuck in your air vents).

Step 2: Give an Introductory Lesson in Tinkercad

Whether you post a video lecture, give a live lecture over a platform like Zoom, or simply give links to the many, many helpful tutorials in Tinkercad, it's important to give students some initial tools to help them begin working in Tinkercad without feeling confused or frustrated.

To begin, students need to access Tinkercad by going HERE. (You can also create a class within Tinkercad for students join so you can manage student projects, but it is not necessary.)

The Tinkercad tutorials HERE help walk students through many of the basics needed to create simple models with ease.

After giving students a solid framework upon which to build upon, set students loose to explore and create on their own!

Step 3: Promote Student-lead Learning Throughout the Project

While working on the project on their own, students brought questions they had to our Zoom classes each day and most of the time, other students were able to share their screens and walk the class through answers to those questions. Quite frankly, the students often came up with different solutions than I would have proposed, so it was a great chance for them to see multiple solutions to a problem (and for their teacher to learn a little bit in the process). The whole activity lead to a wonderfully student-lead discussion that organically grew each day. When students didn't have questions, I would pose 10-minute design challenges (such as "see who can make the coolest garage in 10 minutes) to help give students an opportunity to use new tools and shapes within the program. Students would then share their screens and we would vote on a daily design challenge winner.

Examples of projects students created for this pandemic-inspired design challenge assignment are included next steps, along with explanations of how their designs would help solve a problem created by the pandemic. The student submissions generally fell into three categories, as seen in the subsequent steps.

Step 4: Review of Student Projects - the Straightforward Approach

Many submissions I received were some related to medical supplies - from thermometers to vaccines to a range of different styles of masks. Masks are perhaps the most straightforward solution to the pandemic problem, and I received many mask-themed submissions. From silly solutions like a plague-inspired mask with a 6-foot social distancing beak or a unicorn/hippo design to more straight forward and serious designs, submissions of mask designs clearly solved a real problem faced in the pandemic and were at the forefront of student's minds.

Step 5: Review of Student Projects - the Happiness Approach

With so many students home missing their friends and looking for ways to get out of their houses safely, a second theme in the submissions was seen in designs that solved a very different problem. The problem identified by these submissions was that people are struggling to be happy while stuck at home in uncertain times. One example of a solution related to this problem is to create a way to get out of the house. This cell phone holder for a bicycle gives the freedom to get out of the house and ride around outside for a while listening to music without worrying that your phone would fall out of your pocket.

Step 6: Review of Student Projects - the Empathetic Approach

With the loss of activities like spring sports, prom, and an in-person graduation ceremony, the final category of student submissions were slightly less on the nose with regard to solving a problem. They attempted to solve the problem of grieving the loss of high school experiences by making models that paid tribute to those losses. Since the goal of this assignment was predominantly to get exposure to Tinkercad, I didn't get too picky about the fact that this may not have perfectly aligned with the design brief and instead tried to honor their struggle by accepting submissions from this category as well. My favorite of these designs was a simple graduation cap with our school colors, as shown above.

Step 7: BONUS: Select and Print the Winner!

One final note: for those of you like myself who are new to Tinkercad, it is incredibly user-friendly for 3D printing. You can simply export your design to the file type needed by your 3D printer software (in our case, a .stl file) and print! It even allows you to pick individual objects from your model to export and print, which is super convenient.

Good luck in your Tinkercad exploration!

Distance Learning with Tinkercad Contest

Runner Up in the
Distance Learning with Tinkercad Contest