Seeing History Close-Up with 3D Printing

Guest blogger: Eric Cameron, 916 Mahtomedi Academy

This is my first year using our school’s 3D printer and it has already revolutionized my teaching in many ways, some small and some large.  There are two main ways in which I use 3D printing in my classroom, first by using a pre-made or pre-scanned design and second by designing my own 3D render, or having students create a 3D design themselves.  No longer is Google Image search my only tool to show my students relevant historical images.  The ability to use or create 3D images and models has changed how I help students “see” history.

Inca stones
Inca Stones, Smithsonian X3D.

The first way to use 3D printing and scans is to find and view or print a pre-made or pre-scanned object from online sources.  I search 3D scanning and design software websites such as Smithsonian X3D, Thingiverse, or TinkerCad to see if a pre-made 3D version of an item exists.  If I am able to locate an image, I will either print it so students can get a hands-on experience looking at the item or I will show students the 3D rendering, which allows us to rotate and zoom, viewing the item at different levels from all angles.  For example, this 3D design of the Great Pyramid breaks into two pieces, showing some of the internal passageways. Interacting with this design helped my students visualize the concept that “tunnels” were not always under the pyramid and that the pyramids were not solid piles of stones.  In another student experience I utilized scans and 3D renders of Inca stonework (ex. 1, ex. 2, ex. 3) which allowed my students to understand the intricacies that the Inca people exhibited in their construction.  Some museums, including the Smithsonian X3D and The British Museum, have begun to scan items from their collections and post them online, free of charge, so viewers can 3D print replicas at home.  In addition, some teachers (Matt Fritz), as well as 3D printer (MakerBot) and software companies (Microsoft) have begun designing and sharing designs that are museum quality scans, but are accurate and user-friendly enough for classroom use.  Accessing this information is quick and easy, and the designs, if made by a reputable source, are historically accurate.    

Photo courtesy Eric Cameron.

The second way I use 3D printing in my classroom is to have students design and print a historical object themselves.  I facilitate this through a variety of design websites, such as TinkerCad.  My first venture down this path was to have students demonstrate their learning by designing and 3D printing Civil War Ironclads.  My students were to design Ironclads to highlight how new technology changed the ways wars were fought.  While this method of using 3D printing and technology takes more time it results in the student learning both the historical facts as well as technological skills.

As I reflect on how 3D printing and design has enhanced my teaching of topics such as Civil War technology and the ancient and modern 7 Wonders of the World, I imagine how I could use these same techniques in other areas of history that often challenge my students.  One such area is early technology, such as inventions of ancient peoples in World History or the technological innovations of Pre-Columbian American Indian cultures in United States History.  These early innovations and technologies are difficult for students to grasp because many students, as a result of the modern lens through which they view history, simply have a hard time understanding items without electricity or motors as examples of “advanced technology.”  While students view other aspects of history through this same contemporary lens, not all innovations are difficult to imagine.  For example, because students have life experience with vehicles, and they have seen the advances in automotive technology within their own lifetimes, it is not difficult for them to imagine what it might have been like when the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.  However, early technology, such as axes made from stone, awls made from animal bones, and wood and stone tools used for the tanning of hides seem incomprehensible to many students, especially when referred to as “technology.”

If I were to own a replica of these tools, it would help students understand how this tool, for example, revolutionized life for early American Indian peoples.  I would be able to show my students how the tool worked and how it was an improvement over previous methods.  If my students were able to handle and manipulate an early stone axe, feeling the grooves where it was chiseled to a fine point, seeing how sharp it can be, seeing how and where it would be bound to a wooden handle, I believe they would be able to better understand what life was like for the people at the time, as well as how this “technology” could have made life easier for early American Indians.  

artifactUnfortunately, I do not have any artifacts of early American Indian technology.  This is where 3D printing can play an important role.  With a 3D printer, a teacher can quickly and easily replicate artifacts, buildings, maps, and anything else to give their students a visual hands-on representation.  I have already begun planning how I am going to use 3D printing to make my lessons on early American Indian cultures come alive for my students next fall.  I plan to print versions of early American Indian technologies so students can get a hands-on experience and truly understand how these tools improved life for American Indians.  I envision using 3D printed tools to have students replicate making jewelry and sewing using an awl made of bone and using wood and stone tools to prepare a hide.  I also envision having students learn about different aspects of American Indian culture and use 3D programs to design and print replicas, with the goal of creating a mini-museum of American Indian life.  Some examples could include students researching, designing, and printing American Indian housing to compare longhouses to tepees, analyzing the similarities and differences between the mounds of the Mississippian cultures with the pyramids of the Mayans, or studying different art and sculpture such as totem poles of the Northwest and pottery of the Southwestern cultures.  

To give credit where credit is due, I do need to give my science teacher colleague Matt Nupen a lot of credit for bringing 3D printing into our school and for getting students and staff engaged in and excited about 3D printing and technology.

If you are interested in more information on how to use 3D printing in the classroom, here are some helpful resources to help you get started:

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