3D Printing Inspires Innovation and Creativity in STEAM

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17 May, 2024

3D Printing Inspires Innovation and Creativity in STEAM

3D printing plays a crucial role in STEAM education by providing a tangible way for students to experience the interconnectedness of various disciplines and develop a wide range of skills.

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing interest in the world of education for a particular acronym: STEAM. STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, represents an educational model that aims to integrate the various disciplines in a holistic and engaging way.[1] The ultimate aim of this approach is to equip students—at virtually every level of education—with the soft and hard skills needed to thrive in our 21st century economy. 

3D printing has come to play an important role in the context of education and particularly STEAM. If the goal of STEAM is to think about various disciplines in a more interconnected way, then 3D printing offers a tangible way to experience them as connected. This is because 3D printing touches many different areas and skill sets: from 3D design, to material behavior, to machine calibration and maintenance. 

While in previous articles of this series we focused on industrial applications of 3D printing, we also want to recognize ways that the technology is having impacts outside an industrial setting. That’s because learning how 3D printing plays a role in the aerospace and packaging industries, as well as seeing how it can be used to positive ends in classroom and research settings is essential to understanding how truly versatile and disruptive the technology is. In this article, we’re looking at the diverse ways 3D printing is being used in education to both impart STEAM skills at a young age and further research projects in higher education.

Teaching and Learning with 3D Printing in STEAM

The integration of 3D printing in the classroom for students K-12 has proliferated in recent years, as the benefits of dynamic, hands-on learning have become clear. Students who may have previously felt alienated by or averse to certain topics, like science or math, can find new entry points thanks to 3D printing. In short because the technology makes them fun. 

In addition to accessibility, there are also other benefits. The technology has been shown to help students develop problem-solving skills, as well as communication and teamwork skills all while encouraging creativity. For instance, one school saw success with a 3D printing project that involved multiple age groups. In it, K-3 students were learning about how every person is unique, like a snowflake, and were invited to draw their own snowflake. Students in grades 5-7 then took those drawings and turned them into digital models for 3D printing. The final printed snowflakes were then given back to the younger students to take home.[2] Not only did this activity foster collaboration between different age groups, it also integrated various STEAM subjects seamlessly. 

3D printing projects can also teach patience, as kids often go through a fair bit of trial and error when printing a new design. Mike Page, a vice principal in the Kootenay-Columbia School District 20, which has adopted desktop 3D printers, said: “It’s incredibly powerful to see kids print something multiple times before it works, taking the time to understand what adjustments to make and not giving up. We are teaching kids a great life lesson to adapt and be strong, while staying the course.”[2]

Perhaps most significantly of all, integrating 3D printing in the classroom offers students dynamic, hands-on learning. This tactile approach to learning, which combines traditional teaching methods like lectures, with practical activities that students do themselves, has proven to be hugely beneficial. Not only does it appeal to students who favor more visual/tactile experiences, it can also encourage better understanding as well as knowledge and skill retention.[3]

Today, 3D printing is increasingly being used in K-12 classrooms around the world. This is thanks in part to the availability of accessible 3D printing ecosystems. Accessible 3D printing technologies are helping students to practice various skills, like problem-solving, in a hands-on way. At a public elementary school in the Netherlands, for example, 7th graders used their in-class 3D printer to design and build bottle rockets. This activity involved getting students to draw rocket designs, translate them into 3D models on TinkerCAD, 3D print them, and then test them. Based on test results, students went back to the drawing board to identify flaws and update designs accordingly. Ultimately, this activity was not only hugely entertaining, it also helped teach students about design iteration, product development, as well as the science of aerodynamics.[4]

Advancements in STEAM Research

Alongside younger generations increasingly being introduced to 3D printing early in their educations, the potential for the technology in higher education is also growing. At universities and colleges across the globe, 3D printers are used to multiple different ends: medical students can improve their understanding of anatomy and medical conditions thanks to tactile 3D printed models, architecture students can bring their designs to life in miniature-scale models, mechanical engineering students can create prototypes of new systems and products, designers can experiment with wholly new design concepts, the list goes on. 

On a foundational level, 3D printing in higher education creates a bridge between the theoretical and the real world. In fact, 83% of educators that participated in a 3D Printing Sentiment Index said 3D printing offers “extensive benefits in bringing new concepts and design ideas to life.”[5] In other words, by integrating 3D printers into research labs or even by having a dedicated maker space on college campuses, students gain the ability to deepen their studies while also learning new (and highly transferable) hard skills. 

Certain universities, particularly those that specialize in engineering and physical sciences, are even rolling out dedicated programs and courses centered on additive manufacturing. For instance, MIT offers a course about 3D printing, covering topics like design for AM, applications, and more.[6] Texas A&M also launched a certificate program with hands-on training for both students and professionals seeking to upskill.[7] These types of programs, which complement more traditional manufacturing courses, also equip students with the tools and knowledge they need to further develop and advance 3D printing as a technology.

It is undeniable that research departments across various faculties have evolved thanks to 3D printing (particularly fused filament fabrication). Known for their modest learning curve, low entry cost, and ability to be used safely in a classroom or lab, FFF 3D printing platforms enable researchers to do many things, including:

  • Prototyping and validating scientific concepts

  • Creating customized tools and equipment

  • Printing medical models for surgical training

  • Developing new medical devices

  • Building small-scale architectural models

  • Recreating artifacts for research projects

  • Testing different material properties

  • Exploring new design concepts in art and fashion

  • Engineering new robotic systems

It’s worth emphasizing the aforementioned list is non-exhaustive, there are practically limitless applications for additive solutions in higher education fields. That said, we do want to highlight a few examples of 3D printing in higher education to really understand the technology’s versatility and value.

Formula E race car parts

The student Formula E Racing team at the University of Toronto has come to rely on 3D printing in the design and production of its race cars. In 2023, the team succeeded in building their first electric and driverless vehicle. In the end, 3D printing was essential to the development of the car’s electronics packaging, driverless mechatronics, and ergonomic design. In the former category, the team 3D printed many parts, including custom corner module enclosures made from ASA which protected the internal components from moisture. The technology offered the students a cost-friendly way to test out various designs and bring their race car to life. [9]

17th century instrument replica

At the University of Oxford, a collaboration between the Department of Engineering and Science, the Department of Conservation, and the Pitt Rivers Museum saw a 17th century recorder be recreated using 3D printing. The antique instrument was carefully CT scanned (inside and out) and turned into an identical 3D model before being 3D printed in an array of different materials. The purpose of the project was to enable musicians today to play a replica of the 17th century flute, which itself was too delicate to handle. This application and others like it make historical artifacts more accessible and tangible for practical research purposes.[8]

Microfluidic devices

Researchers at Cardiff University in the UK regularly use 3D printers to produce microfluidic devices. These small devices, which are used to study the behavior of fluids, can be used in many disciplines for a range of applications (such as pharmaceutical development, energy production, and more). 3D printing has offered nothing but benefits to the researchers: they can now easily produce the complex devices on-site and save substantial time and resources compared to traditional methods. 3D printing also enables the researchers to easily share their designs with other teams to increase the accessibility of microfluidic research.[10]

Opportunities for Future Innovations

When it comes to STEAM education, the biggest opportunity for 3D printing comes from greater integration and adoption. However, educators still face certain challenges in taking advantage of the technology’s full potential. In a survey, budget constraints, insufficient equipment and lack of technical training were all listed as the top hurdles to enhancing STEAM education. In terms of 3D printing, over 60% of educators said they wanted a full 3D printing ecosystem, including 3D printing lesson plans and training programs, to reach objectives.[11]

Fortunately, 3D printer hardware and materials are becoming increasingly accessible, which will encourage adoption at all levels of education. Teaching resources are also more available than ever, making integration into curriculum seamless and equipping teachers with what they need to teach kids about 3D printing. Ultimately, having a 3D printing ecosystem will facilitate not only the adoption of 3D printing in schools, but also the impact the technology has on students as they learn STEAM subjects. 

Leveraging 3D printing in a STEAM context is also part of a greater trend in education and our economy: that of digitalization. 3D printing, as a design and production tool, can introduce young students to otherwise complex technologies, like augmented and virtual reality. For example, kids can use tablets to visualize 3D models in augmented reality before printing them or can bring 3D prints to life in a digital world using AR applications. 

Another big opportunity area when it comes to STEAM research at a higher education level is to leverage cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to improve additive manufacturing processes. At MIT, for instance, a team of researchers is using AI and computer vision to monitor the 3D printing of different materials and adjust print settings to fix errors in real time. The AI program is being trained using simulations and has the potential to not only save time and money but also accelerate material development and qualification for 3D printing processes—currently a significant hurdle to application development.[12] 

All that to say, the future of 3D printing in STEAM education is bright. From a young age, students can benefit from learning about and through 3D printing. The skills they acquire through fun, multidisciplinary activities will translate as they pursue STEAM subjects in higher education and, ultimately, help them in their careers.


[1] The History and Importance of STEAM Education [Internet]. STEAM Truck. August 3, 2020. Available from: https://www.steamtruck.org/blog/steam-education-history-importance 

[2] White paper: Enhancing School Education with Project-Based Learning and 3D Printing [Internet]. UltiMaker. June 2021. Available from: https://ultimaker.com/learn/enhancing-education-with-project-based-learning-and-3d-printing/ 

[3] Riskowski JL, Todd CD, Wee B, Dark M, Harbor J. Exploring the effectiveness of an interdisciplinary water resources engineering module in an eighth grade science course. International journal of engineering education. 2009 Jan 1;25(1):181.

[4] Teaching STEM with 3D printed bottle rockets [Internet]. UltiMaker. 2023. Available from: https://ultimaker.com/learn/teaching-stem-with-3d-printed-bottle-rockets/ 

[5] UltiMaker Guide: 3D printing in higher education and research [Internet]. UltiMaker. 2022. Available from: https://ultimaker.com/learn/3d-printing-for-higher-education-and-research/ 

[6] Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production. MIT. 2023. Available from:


[7] Additive Manufacturing Certificate Program. Texas A&M. 2023. Available from: https://tees.tamu.edu/workforce-development/professional-education/additive-manufacturing-cert/index.html

[8] 3D printing technology replicates fragile musical instruments [Internet]. Department of Engineering, University of Oxford. 2019. Available from: https://eng.ox.ac.uk/case-studies/plastic-fantastic-project-uses-3d-printing-technology-to-replicate-fragile-musical-instruments/ 

[9] MakerBot Webinar: Formula E Racing with 3D Printing [Internet]. MakerBot. June 22, 2023. Available from: https://www.makerbot.com/stories/makerbot-webbcast-formula-e-racing-with-3d-printing/ 

[10] Cardiff University: Accessible 3D printed microfluidic devices [Internet]. UltiMaker. 2023. Available from:  https://ultimaker.com/learn/cardiff-university-accessible-3d-printed-microfluidic-devices/ 

[11] MakerBot 3D Printing Trends Report [Internet]. MakerBot. 2021. Available from: https://pages.makerbot.com/edu3DPrintingTrendReport.html 

[12] Zewe, Adam. Using artificial intelligence to control digital manufacturing [Internet]. MIT News. August 2, 2022. Available from: https://news.mit.edu/2022/artificial-intelligence-3-d-printing-0802