Introduction: How to Save Coral Reefs Using 3D Design and Printing

About: Tinkercad is a free and easy, browser-based 3D design and modeling tool for all. Tinkercad allows anyone to imagine anything and then design it in minutes.

Lesson author: Tinkercad for Education

Recommended grades: 6-8

Skills taught:

  • Connect the unifying concepts of science to real-life, human issues
  • Create an object that expresses an understanding of concepts such as symmetry, fractals, and approaches to design
  • Explain the relationship between the form of an object and its function

Lesson overview:

This lesson builds students’ understanding of the real-life issue of coral bleaching through research, hands-on investigation, and the creation of 3D models in Tinkercad.

Estimated instructional time: 5 hours

Materials: computers, internet, Tinkercad (a free, easy-to-use, web-based 3D CAD design tool); optional, but useful: computer mice, 3D printer, and craft supplies like clay and paper

Step 1: Introduce the Lesson

I might be 50 million years old. I produce chemical compounds that can cure diseases, and provide food and resources for over 500 million people. Did I mention, tourists love me? In fact, I am the source of 80 percent of some countries' total income. Also - not to brag - but I'm incredibly attractive...

My secret: it's the algae. Unfortunately, when I get stressed, I kick them out and lose all my beautiful color; and, eventually, I die. Why am I telling you this? I think your students can help me.

Who am I? You guessed it: Coral reefs! Okay. This isn't really coral talking, but we are speaking on its behalf.

Did you know our world's ocean has lost 50 percent of its corals in the last 50 years? In the meantime, 25 percent of all known marine life in the ocean depend on coral reefs for their survival. Crustaceans. Reptiles. Birds. Sharks. Seaweed. Bacteria. Fungi. Nemo... (Four thousand species of fish to be exact!) And the problem is not solving itself.

Luckily, we thought of a way for you to help: Create coral reefs with your students using 3D design skills. Why? By teaching your students the skill of 3D design, you will be teaching them a tool that actual scientists use to solve the pressing real-world problem of coral bleaching. You will also be amazed as your students suddenly transform into citizen scientists when presented with such an authentic challenge.

As a teacher, you will be growing too. By integrating 3D design into your instruction, you will be expanding your capacity to:

  • Connect the unifying concepts of science to real-life, human issues
  • Engage students in the creation of models
  • Teach the relationship between the form of an object and its function
  • Spark creativity and get your students collaborating
  • Provide another means for students to communicate about science
  • Get your students thinking interdisciplinarily
  • Learn a new skill

You know that science is ultimately a creative and imaginative human endeavor; with the help of 3D design technology, such as Tinkercad and Fusion 360 software, you can empower students with the belief that they literally can "make" a difference.

Getting started with Tinkercad

If this is your first time using 3D modeling and printing to teach science, here are a few helpful hints to get you started:

  • Explore online 3D galleries
  • Watch videos made by Tinkercad enthusiasts
  • Don't overthink it!

For more information on managing your classroom for making, how to assess a 3D design project, and more, please check out: How to Bring Tinkercad into Your Classroom.

Another great resource for helping your students to gain a conceptual understanding of 3D design, (while also talking like pros!), is this vocabulary primer: How to Teach the Language of 3D Modeling and Design.

Step 2: Build Context

Do your students love building their own worlds in Minecraft? How would they like designing a city for very specific inhabitants - one where the residents' whole existence depends on your students for their survival? Sounds like science fiction, right?

However, as a science teacher you know that these kinds of speculative stories are often grounded in reality. And, unfortunately this scenario is all too real for our world's endangered coral reefs, which are among the most fragile ecosystems on the planet and vital to both human and marine life. Because science learning flows from both scientific literacy and from general literacy, it makes sense to begin your coral 3D design project by providing your students with some context for the problem their design might solve. So let's get started!

First, understand the basics.

Often called "rainforests of the sea", coral reefs form some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Coral reefs are built by colonies of tiny animals found in marine water that contain few nutrients. They are held together by calcium carbonate structures secreted by corals. Most coral reefs are built from stony corals, which, in turn, consist of polyps that cluster in groups.

According to Reefs at Risk Revisited, a recent report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are at risk from local and global stresses. Ten percent of coral reefs have already been damaged beyond repair, and if we don't take any major steps to stop this trend, WRI projects that 90 percent of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030, and all of them by 2050.

Here are a few great primers to get your students acquainted with some key facts:

Corals and Coral Reefs

Types of Reefs

Fun Article with Lots of Images Related to Coral

Get to Know Coral

Define the problem.

Imagine a city where there is literally no waste, where the byproduct of every organism is a resource for another. Coral reefs have been solving problems on their own in this way for millennia - using incredibly efficient systems and structures that humans could learn a great deal from and, in turn, apply across a variety of disciplines. (Your students can too! Read more about interdisciplinary connections in Step 7.) However, due to a range of human activity - from destructive fishing practices and careless tourists to pollution and climate change - corals are requiring human intervention into the harmonious network they built.

Now that your students have a better grasp of the problem, provide them with some open-ended reading and challenge them to further define it themselves.

Here are some places to start:

An Investigation of Coral Bleaching

Coral Reef Threats: Fact Sheet

Human Threats to Corals

Natural Threats to Corals

Explore some existing solutions.

Recently, scientists have been using both 3D-mapping and 3D-design technologies to not only measure the ocean's rapidly degrading health, but also to create fake reefs that mimic the texture and architectural structure of natural reefs in ways that haven’t been achieved in prior restoration efforts. While this new technique is offering an abundance of hope, it is still an experiment - one that could perhaps be improved upon by your students!

Read more about this below:

3D Methods for Measuring Coral

3D Methods for "Making" Coral

Challenges in 3D Printing Coral

Step 3: Inspire Empathy and Inquiry

Did you know that We Share a Molecular Armor with Coral Reefs? Scientists recently discovered a common immune system response that proves humans and coral share a common evolutionary lineage. Information like this might help students build a stronger sense of empathy about the problem.

In researching and further defining the problem, your students might also start to ask questions not only about the problem itself, but also the solutions they are reading about.

Sometimes there is even a problem within a "solution" that needs to be solved. A great real-world example of this is Popular Science magazine's 2015 Environmental Invention Award winner Alex Goad, who designed the artificial reef pictured at the beginning of this step. His Modular Artificial Reef Structure snaps together like Legos and solves the problem that earlier fake reefs had of requiring a flat sea floor - which is not the case for much of the world's ocean.

Step 4: Make Space for Hands-on Investigation

Are your students engaged yet? If so, get out of the way and allow them some space to explore their ideas!

One way to get students engaged hands-on is through the Tinkercad lesson Creating a Coral Reef. It provides a fantastic introduction to both the basics of 3D design as well as the mathematical concepts of linear and radial symmetry and fractals.

Once your students have mastered the basics of creating coral, show them these images and challenge them to recreate something more complex. Keep reminding students to think about how elements of coral's form, such as surface area, enhance its essential processes, such as absorption.

Now that your students can't get enough of the mathematical beauty of nature, you might even have them ponder the constraints of using technology for 3D modeling. Wondering how some 3D designers are creatively tackling the challenge of expressing hyperbolic geometry? Read this.

Are your students ready to make the leap to even more advanced 3D design software? This article beautifully illustrates how one marine biologist uses Fusion 360 for both design and collaboration while in the field. One benefit of working on this design in Fusion is the added flexibility students will have in experimenting with form and function. This page contains great lessons for beginners, which demonstrate techniques that could be useful for making corals - such as creating mirror features and applying symmetry. When students are finished with their design, they can also create realistic renderings that can visualize their model in a variety of angles, materials, and colors.

Step 5: Spark Creativity and Collaboration

Now that your students have mastered making particular types of coral, inspire them to use teamwork and divergent thinking to build a coral reef together. Instant Challenges are fun, STEAM-based group activities that must be solved within a short period of time. Have students upload a file you've created (or use this one), with some starter shapes and rules for how to use them. Then see how innovative they can be within these parameters.

Remind your students that one reason 3D printed reefs are considered more successful habitats than earlier artificial reefs is the level of complexity that can be achieved through this medium. This complexity might be illustrated through:

  • nooks and crannies
  • protective space for fish
  • passageways and doors
  • angles that cast shade or light and enable fish to feed or to avoid predators

Tell them their designs will be judged based on this criteria. At the end, students can explain to the larger group their process for how they used what was given to them and why they think their design is the best. It is always fascinating to hear about the variety of approaches students take to solving a problem.

Allowing students to collaborate when trying out something new is also an effective way to scaffold for deeper learning.

Step 6: Teach Science Communication

Science communication is part of a scientist's everyday life. Your students can use Tinkercad as a powerful tool for sharing their scientific knowledge with others by teaching them how to make 3D infographics, such as the one depicted above about the water cycle.

One coral-related process that students could have fun illustrating is its unique digestive system.

We could all learn a lot about how coral is able to maximize energy while minimizing waste!

Step 7: Make Interdisciplinary Connections

As a science teacher, you understand the importance of knowing how to apply the concepts you teach to engineering practices. You probably also love teaching science because of its myriad opportunities for making exciting interdisciplinary connections. So how cool is it when a field such as synthetic biology emerges, and suddenly, students' artistic skills become more valued in the domain of science? Advances in technology are now allowing scientists to consider solutions that had before only existed in the realm of science fiction - such as manipulating coral genes to enhance stress tolerance in reaction to climate change. How about having your students design at the molecular level too?

Here's a great article to get your students thinking about how we might "assist" evolution.

Let nature be your muse.

Did you know that economists have begun to study the coral reef to learn about its efficient system for allocating resources? That's actually the goal of biomimicry: to take human problems and ask nature, "how would you solve this?" For example, why would engineers look to a brain coral for inspiration for a round tire? See if your students can apply what they have learned about coral reefs to this cool lesson about a new concept car design.

Coral has served as a muse for many artworks and consumer products, for example, this "brain coral" phone case was designed in Fusion 360 by importing and tracing some images to create extruded cuts into a surface - resulting in a fun tactile material. After seeing this, maybe your students' art teacher will want to go cross-curricular with you!

Debate how it's made.

Exploring materials science is also a natural extension for this project - once students have created their design, have them choose what material would be most ideal for printing it. Even if that material isn't readily available, students could still conduct research and make a pitch about what material would best serve the artificial reef's function if it were to be manufactured - for example, a material that absorbs pollution or one that makes the water less acidic when it dissolves. Who knows? Maybe your students' English teacher might want to help turn this into a debate.

Chart your own journey.

The study of coral reefs is such a generative topic; we are sure you can imagine even more directions this project could take you. Please share your ideas in the comments section at the end of this Instructable!

And if you are still hungry for inspiration, check out this cool TED Talk about a massive coral-crocheting art installation, or this artist who combines math and bio in beautiful 3D printed masterpieces.

Step 8: Know Your Standards

But, what about the standards?

Most 3D design can be aligned to standards in different ways. For example, Next Generation Science Standards call for elementary school students to be able to develop a model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem. Common Core standards expect middle- and high- school students to integrate data from the real world with text and visuals. Additionally, the UK's National Curriculum for Design and Technology also aligns well with teaching 3D design.

So just relax, and enjoy the experience with your students! They will too.

Step 9: Keep the Conversation Going!

Well done! If you're looking for more inspiration and supporting materials to share with your students on the importance of sustaining coral reefs, check out these resources:

The Quest to Save Coral Reefs

Can 3D-printed coral save the world's reefs?

More than just prosthetics: The role of 3D printing in wildlife conservation

3D Printing Could Save Our Dying Coral Reefs - grassroots organization dedicated to saving the coral reefs

National Ocean Service

The Hydrous - not-for-profit organization involved in coral reef science and research

Have fun and keep an eye out for more projects coming soon! If you have suggestions on future Instructable projects you'd like to see, please add a comment, we'd love to hear from you.