Introduction: Use Design Thinking to Teach 3D Printing to Kids

This Instructable will show you how to teach kids about 3D design technology using the Design Thinking process!

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a set of creative strategies that uses empathy to identify problems and generate user-friendly solutions. While historically used by product engineers and tech brands, Design Thinking is gaining traction as a process for solving all kinds of problems, both within and outside traditional design fields.

Here at the Public Library in Salmon, Idaho, we've been experimenting with Design Thinking as a tool for teaching creative problem-solving. Last summer, we hosted our first-ever Maker Camp and challenged kids to design think a slide for the community pool. But the challenge proved really difficult for them.

As excited as our campers were by the prospect of the slide, we realized pretty quickly that we couldn't teach them Design Thinking and have them apply Design Thinking to the pool problem at the same time. For these kids, most of whom had never built anything in their lives, trying to think about the needs of the pool users, at the same time as creating an original design for the slide, at the same time as figuring out how to actually build the slide equaled information overload. Big time.

Alas, the slide did not end up getting built (yet), but we learned an important lesson about setting kids up for success in the Making universe.

The next time we had the opportunity to work with kids on a design project, we tried a different approach. We were coaching a team of middle school students for a digital fabrication competition. The challenge was to identify a problem in transportation, and 3D print a solution.

The open-ended challenge presented the perfect opportunity to use Design Thinking; however, rather than throwing it at our students right away, we first took them through a series of lessons so they could build the skills they would need to Design Think and 3D print successfully. This process is known as scaffolding, and it's a great way to introduce kids to creative technologies.

We'll be sharing all of our 3D printing lessons here in this Instructable. Each of these lessons was designed to introduce the group to an aspect of the Design Thinking process (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) while building technical knowledge about 3D design.

A few notes about our process:

Class Size and Student-Teacher Ratio: We facilitated each of these exercises with a group of six kids, usually with two facilitators present. However, depending on the resources available, these activities should be scalable for a larger group. As with anything, the more opportunities you can create for one-on-one interaction with your students, the better. This is especially true for Making-based learning, where students may go in different directions and need feedback tailored to their individual projects. Teaching assistants and adult volunteers are a great help in this case; if you're short-staffed, just do your best to circle the room and take time for at least one meaningful interaction with each student!

Grade Level: We designed these lessons to be facilitated with middle school students, ages 12-14. You could adapt these lessons to younger or older age groups by adjusting the pace of each lesson, and adding or taking away constraints for the different challenges we've created.

No 3D-Printer? No Problem: What's great about these exercises is that the majority don't need a 3D printer to be successful. You could lead a group of students through the curriculum and then find a local museum, library or fab lab to visit for a "Print Day." Even if there's no 3D printer nearby, we hope these lessons can serve as a model for how Design Thinking can be applied to Making projects of all kinds!

Last, but not least: We've tried to set these up so that someone new to Design Thinking should still be able to follow along. If that's you, we encourage you to check out the resources below!

Design Thinking: Suggested Resources

IDEO U: Design Thinking

Stanford A Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking

Toolkit: Design Thinking for Libraries

Interaction Design Foundation: 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process

Step 1: My First Print

Supplies for this Lesson:

  • 3D Printer
  • Sample 3D Printed Object
  • Computer loaded with slicing/printing software
  • Scraper or other tool for removing print from print bed

Every creator begins as a consumer, or user, of whatever it is they are trying to make. It's inevitable. The quickest way to get a kid interested in 3D printing is to show them all the cool stuff they can do with one!

This first lesson is by far the most technical of the bunch, and doesn't directly involve Design Thinking. However, once students have the basics down, it will be far easier for them to focus on the actual design process.

  1. Start by showing your students a sample 3D-printed object. If you don't have an object on hand, you can find and download a file to print on Thingiverse, which is an online library of pre-designed, 3D-printable objects. Try and pick something that your students will find interesting, like a phone case or a popular book or movie character.
  2. Explain to your students that the object was made using a 3D printer. Ask them what else they think could be created with this technology. You can also show them examples, like this 3D-printed house, 3D-printable prosthetics, or these decoy sea turtle eggs for tracking down poachers.
  3. Now that you've got them hooked, it's time to introduce the 3D printer! How you do this will depend on the type of printer you have. We use the Flashforge Finder, which is a great printer to use with kids due to its safety features and user-friendly interface. No matter what printer you have, it is a good idea to start by explaining the functions of the different components. Components you should mention include:
    • power supply & on/off switch
    • print bed
    • extruder & extruder head
    • filament
    • SD card slot or USB port (how the printer connects to the computer)
    • user interface
  4. Next, teach your students how to load and unload filament into your printer. This is a good opportunity to talk about the different types of filament a 3D printer can use. This helpful guide contains an overview of the two most common types of 3D printer filament - ABS and PLA - as well as 14 other materials (if you're curious!) Try to give each student the opportunity to load and unload the printer; this will encourage responsibility for and engagement with the technology. If time is tight, give students the opportunity to practice in later lessons.
  5. Once you have introduced your students to the 3D printer, it's time to set up a print! Have your students decide together as a group on an object to print from Thingiverse. Make sure they pick something small and simple, such as this six-sided die. Pro Tip: Not all "things" available on Thingiverse are actually suitable for print. Look out for over-sized objects, gaps, uneven angles, or objects that are "floating" - not flush with the workplane.
  6. Click on the "Thing Files" tab to download the object's STL file directly to your computer. Explain to your students that ".stl" is the standard file abbreviation for 3D objects, just like ".doc" for Word documents or ".jpg" for pictures.
  7. You should now introduce your students to your printer's "slicing software." Explain to your students that slicing software translates the 3D drawing into a language that the 3D printer can understand. You'll want to make sure slicing software is already downloaded on your computer, and that you have a basic understanding of how to use it, before you teach this lesson. Not sure what slicing software to use? Check to see if your printer manufacturer has designed one specifically for your printer (our Flashforge uses Flashprint). Otherwise, there are plenty of slicing programs available for download. Cura, by Ultimaker, is free and generally regarded as good for both novice and expert users.
  8. Within the slicing software, show students how they can adjust aspects of the print for quality versus speed. (In this case, you should probably go for a low-quality, high-speed option.) Have them check to make sure the object is oriented properly on the print bed, and if there are any overhangs in the design where supports should be added. Where possible, put your students in the driver's seat. Give them the mouse and have them select the appropriate options with your guidance.
  9. Now it's time to print! At this time, it's a good idea to review or discuss safety tips for operating the 3D printer. Again, this will vary depending on the printer you have, but generally means steering clear of any heated or moving parts.
  10. While the object is printing, explain to your students that the goal is for them to eventually design and print their own 3D creations. Here, you can introduce them to a couple of simple Internet programs. The first, Cookie Caster, allows you to trace or draw a 2D image and convert it into a 3D "cookie cutter" for printing. This can also be a good way for kids to visualize how the concept of 2D printing has been translated to 3D. The other program is Tinkercad, which will be covered in detail in the next lesson. For now, give your students a preview with this short video:
  11. If it is an option on your printer, show students how to pause or stop a print in progress. Ask them why pausing a print might be useful from a design perspective (for example, pausing a print to swap in new filament).
  12. Once the print is done, guide a student volunteer in removing the object from the print bed. Allow students to pass the object around and examine any raft/support structures present.
  13. Lesson 1 Complete!

Introduction to 3D Printing: Suggested Resources

MatterHackers: Anatomy of a 3D Printer

"What is 3D Printing" Definitive Guide

3D Insider: 16 Types of 3D Printer Filaments

Step 2: Learn to Design With Tinkercad

Supplies for this Lesson:

  • Computer & Mouse (1 for each student)
  • Sample images and/or everyday objects for students to model

In this lesson, students will learn the basics of 3D design by completing tutorials on Tinkercad. These tutorials are self-guided, meaning that students can work at their own pace. Depending on the context and age of the students you're working with, you may consider giving this lesson as a homework assignment for Lesson 1 (provided your students have access to an Internet connection and a computer.)

If your students are younger and/or you don't think they're quite ready for Tinkercad, you can have them work on a project in Cookie Caster first. It is also pretty doable to split up students of different skill levels and have them working on different platforms at the same time.

  1. Before you teach this lesson, you and any assistants who will be facilitating should each sign up for your own account in Tinkercad and work through the tutorials yourselves. This will not only provide you with valuable fundamental knowledge about 3D design, it will also allow you to empathize with your students as they work through the exercises and identify in advance the places they might get stuck.
  2. Once you've made your Tinkercad account, check out the Teach tab, where you'll be able to create Invite Codes for your students and monitor their progress once they have created their accounts.
  3. Share your Invite Code with your students via email.
  4. Once students have created their accounts, have them work through the six tutorials, finishing with "Die on the Workplane." As your students are working, you and any other facilitators should circulate the room, offering guidance and positive feedback.
  5. Once students complete the tutorials, have them try creating a 3D model out of an image or everyday object. This gives them practice translating an image or physical prototype into a 3D model.
  6. Lesson 2 Complete!

Learn to Design with Tinkercad: Suggested Resources

Learn Tinkercad

Step 3: Challenge: Design a Charging Station

Supplies For This Lesson:

  • Computer & Mouse (1 for each student)
  • Table
  • Personal Electronic Device
  • Rulers
  • Pencils
  • Graph Paper
  • 3D Printer (Optional)

An important aspect of teaching 3D printing, or any technology, to youth is to make engaging with the technology meaningful in some way. We do this by creating design exercises in the form of "challenges" -- we give the students a problem and challenge them to solve it using the given technology. For this series of lessons, we gave students the following prompt:

Design a charging station for your mobile phone.

This is a great challenge as it is simple enough to be accomplished in one sitting, but still allows for considerable variation from student to student. You can have students use their own phones for this challenge. If your students don't have phones, or your institution's policy does not allow them, have a couple of sample phones (or another portable electronic device, like a camera or MP3 player) for them to work with. Students will need to take measurements of the device and the charging port in order to create their station.

As with the last lesson, you should circulate the room, prompting students with questions and offering positive feedback.

  1. Ideate/Brainstorm: For the first few minutes, have students write down and/or doodle different ideas for the charging station.
  2. Sketch: Students should complete a sketch of their design before attempting it in Tinkercad. Depending on the level of your students and your teaching objectives, you may want to require a scale drawing as an intermediate step between the rough sketch and the 3D model.
  3. Model: Students should translate their sketch into a 3D model in Tinkercad.
  4. Reiterate (Optional): After a certain interval of time, have students pair up and give each other feedback on their charging station designs. Encourage them to ask each other questions about the aesthetics, functionality and printability of their design.
  5. As students finish, have them show their designs to a facilitator. Together, the student and the facilitator should "check" the design for any gaps or misalignment, and if the object is flush with the workplane.
  6. Have the student prepare the print as reviewed in the first lesson, offering assistance where needed.
  7. Test: Set up the printed charging stations and see how the phones fit! Have students write down two or three ideas for adjustments they would make in a future iteration of the design.
  8. Lesson 3 Complete!

Step 4: Empathy Exercise: Design a Key Management System

Supplies for this Lesson:

  • Whiteboard/Chalkboard
  • Pens/Pencils
  • Paper
  • Scissors (1 pair per 2/3 students minimum)
  • Rapid Prototyping Materials: cardboard boxes and tubes, construction paper, straws, pipe cleaners, aluminum foil, string, rubber bands, packing peanuts, Popsicle sticks, foam, stickers, tape, glue, etc.

With any design activity, we try and teach youth how to have empathy for others when designing for them. If we know little to nothing about someone or their situation, then we are just designing for ourselves. In this exercise, a facilitator role plays a school custodian who is in need of a system for keeping track of their keys. You can substitute other role plays depending on what you think will be interesting to your students -- or, have an actual working professional present a design dilemma for students to solve.

Give students an overall question/challenge to work from, for example:

"How might we design a key management system to meet the needs of our school custodian?"

Importantly, this challenge question asks students to design based on the needs of somebody else -- but it doesn't reveal what those needs are. It is up to students to figure out those needs, and how to respond to them, by interviewing the custodian.

  1. Before the lesson, create a persona for the custodian who will be interviewed. This should include both job-related aspects -- number and types of keys they have to manage, work routine, struggles they encounter on the job, etc. -- as well as more personal attributes -- hobbies, personality traits, their favorite thing about being a custodian, etc. To make the role play easier, feel free to base these traits on the person playing the role!
  2. At the beginning of the lesson, ask students to give what they think is the definition of empathy. Have a discussion on how getting to know a person and putting yourself in their shoes can help you to design a better product for them. (The depth of this discussion will likely depend on student age and skill levels. The more advanced students are, the more reflection there should be on the value of empathy.)
  3. Introduce the design prompt, but encourage students to let go of any preconceived notions about what a good key system might be.
  4. As a group, have students brainstorm questions to ask the custodian. Encourage them to get to know the custodian as a person, as well as a custodian. Have a designated note-taker, or all students, write these questions down on a piece of paper. Tell your students that they will be in charge of the conversation, and you will not be asking any questions.
  5. Introduce the custodian to the group. Depending on the number of students, you may want to split students up into smaller cohorts for the interview. Allow students to conduct the interview, only interjecting where needed to prompt more questions or keep students on task.
  6. After the custodian has left, ask students to record what they "found out" on a dry erase or chalk board. For each thing they mention, ask how this information could be used to design something to help the custodian manage their keys. Tip: It's OK if students sometimes answer "I don't know," or "I don't think this will help." Explain to students that not all information gathered from an interview is inherently useful. Part of the process is learning to listen and sort out what is helpful from what is not.
  7. Now that they have completed the "Empathy" portion, have students work through the rest of the Design Thinking process as individuals or in teams. It is best to give time limits on each step of the process so that students keep moving, rather than getting stuck on a single idea or problem.
  8. Define (2 minutes): Students should write down what they think is the main problem or problems preventing the custodian from comfortably managing their keys. (i.e. "keys all look the same," "hard to carry," etc.)
  9. Ideate (3-5 minutes): Students come up with as many ideas as they can for a solution to the key problem(s). Afterward, students should review their ideas and pick one they think is doable and will meet the custodian's needs best. Tell students that they may consider combining ideas or trying out a few different ones.
  10. Sketch (3-5 minutes): Students draw a rough sketch of their design idea(s).
  11. Prototype (10-20 minutes): Using raw materials such as cardboard, rubber bands, tape, string, etc., students should create a prototype of their design. They may find in this process that their design doesn't quite work as they expected or that they need to deviate from their original idea. Encourage them to try different things and make adjustments as needed.
  12. Test / Client Feedback: Bring the custodian back into the room and have each student / team present their prototype. The custodian can then give feedback on what they like and dislike about the design.
  13. Reiterate: Depending on the amount of time you have, have students go back and make adjustments to their prototype (or create an entirely new one) or simply discuss updates they could make to their design.
  14. If you have the time, you can have students attempt a 3D model of their prototype (with feedback incorporated) in Tinkercad. Alternatively, you could assign this as homework. Even if your cohort does not make it to 3D designing, they will have learned important skills for planning a design, and the critical relationship between empathy, problem solving and designing.
  15. Lesson 4 Complete!

Design a Key Management System: Suggested Resources

Design Thinking: Getting Started with Empathy

An Introduction to Design Thinking: Process Guide

Step 5: Challenge: Research & Design a Dog Bowl

Supplies for this Lesson:

  • Computer & Mouse (1 for each student)
  • Pencils
  • Scrap Paper
  • Graph Paper
  • Rulers
  • Scissors
  • Compass or Protractor (for sketching circles)
  • Cardboard and Tape (for prototyping)

In this lesson, students choose a breed of dog and design a food bowl for it. You may want to host all or part of this lesson at a library, in order to maximize student access to resources for the "Research" part of the challenge.

  1. Have each student choose a breed of dog. For older students, you may invite them to search for a breed on their own; for younger students, you may want to have a list of breeds that they can choose from, or have them draw names from a hat.
  2. Research: Students should research information about their selected breed, including size, feeding habits (how much food they eat), feeding behavior (messy or neat, fast or slow), facial features, etc. Encourage students to take notes on what they find, even if they're not initially sure how a piece of information might help.
  3. Empathy: Even though students aren't designing for another human in this case, encourage students to tap into their empathy skills, to imagine themselves in the dog's place and think about what it would need to have an ideal eating experience.
  4. Ideate: Based on what they determine to be the needs of the dog, students make a list of features the dog bowl should have. Encourage your students to think outside the box, considering more than just the dog's size and how much they eat. How can they make the bowl better for a dog with a long snout versus a flat face? What about a dog who eats too fast?
  5. Sketch: Students make a pen-and-paper sketch of their dog bowl, including dimensions.
  6. Scale: At this point, many of your students will have to scale down their dog bowl to a size capable of being printed by the 3D printer. Give students the maximum print area of your 3D printer. If their dog bowl design does not fit within this area, they will have to determine a factor to scale down the model by. (Depending on the age of your students, worksheets or one-on-one assistance may be helpful here.) Have your students create new dimensions for their bowls based on the scale.
  7. Prototype (Optional): Provide students the option of designing a cardboard prototype before moving into the 3D modeling phase. This may be helpful for students who respond to a more hands-on experience.
  8. Model: Students should now translate their designs into Tinkercad.
  9. As students finish, have them show their designs to a facilitator. Together, the student and the facilitator should "check" the design for any gaps or misalignment, and if the object is flush with the workplane.
  10. Have the student prepare the print as reviewed in previous lessons, offering assistance where needed.
  11. Lesson 5 Complete!

That's it for our lessons. Of course, there is plenty of room for continued growth, depending on the time you have to devote to this topic and your overall student learning goals. From here, you can continue assigning design challenges of increasing complexity. Typically, challenges become more difficult the less specifically the problem is defined at the outset; for example, asking students to design a cup holder versus asking them to design an accessory to make driving more comfortable.

Eventually, you may want to try working through a multi-week challenge, like we did with our students as they prepared for their 3D design competition. The important thing to remember is that even though the problem to solve may be more complex, the process longer and the outcome more open-ended, the fundamental process is still the same. The more students practice this process, the more intuitive it will become and the more likely students are to apply it to solving problems that arise in and out of the learning environment.