Tap Their Excitement
3-D printers are captivating students and transforming industries. Engineering educators can—and should—make them an integral part of their programs.
Opinion By Frank A. Fuller
The advancement of technology has always been the foundation of what fascinates and motivates engineers to pursue careers in the field. Over the past century, we have seen accelerated breakthroughs in robotics, cellphones, computers, drones, solid modeling, alternative energy applications, and 3-D printers, among other technologies. For engineering educators, this rapidly evolving landscape raises a key question: How do we efficiently and effectively integrate new technologies into our curriculum in a way that maximizes learning?
In 13 years as an engineering educator and in years of industrial experience, I have never seen a new technology captivate students as much as 3-D printers do. The allure is easy to understand, given rapid prototyping’s almost magical transformation of computer-aided designs into solid objects that can be turned and examined from all angles. My students’ eyes shine with amazement as they watch their drawings being printed to their exact dimensions. Many want to spend extra time designing additional parts and print them outside of class. Employers on my engineering advisory committee reinforce this passion by sharing how 3-D printers save time and money while enabling the production of customized new parts for clients’ machinery. They also constantly recommend more 3-D printer applications in our curriculum to better prepare graduates for the workplace.
Indeed, many of my students tell me about their amazing internship and employment experiences with 3-D printing. They even ask me for recommendations on the best 3-D printers to buy for home use. Engineering undergraduates in disciplines that don’t require a 3-D printing course often ask if they can switch majors. One of my electrical engineering students stopped by my office the other day to say he was considering switching to mechanical engineering, for example. He recently had completed an internship that required him to design 3-D models and then make them on the company’s large printer, and the experience impressed him deeply. He ultimately opted to stay and take several courses related to 3-D printing—but only after several advising sessions that included asking him to reevaluate his initial reasons for majoring in electrical engineering.
The experience made me think about the positive impact that 3-D printing has on student interest in different engineering careers—and if we could integrate 3-D printing throughout our curriculum. The issue arose in our advisory committee and faculty meetings. One discussion centered on including 3-D printing in existing courses that traditionally don’t incorporate the technology. For example, civil engineering courses such as Building Materials and Construction Methods and Architectural Drafting could incorporate 3-D printing of scaled-down building or house designs, maximizing the use of this learning tool. Circuits labs offer a variety of 3-D printing applications, while biomedical engineering has made huge advances in the printing of human tissue from stem cells.
Including 3-D printing in a course’s title proved a great marketing tool. We also found that retitling courses—changing SolidWorks to SolidWorks and 3-D Printing, for example—lets professional engineers and others seeking continuing education credits readily identify the needed content. Our school also developed two new stand-alone courses: Introduction to 3-D Printing and Advanced 3-D Printing. However, they apply only in our applied industrial technology major because our engineering programs already were maxed out in credit hours.
We obtained 3-D printers through grants and our equipment budget, but YouTube videos of the process can be an effective, cheap, and easily implemented option. I made a video on 3-D printing for our engineering technologies program website, for instance, that includes testimonials from employers and students. Thus, 3-D printing can be a marketing tool to increase enrollment and interest in engineering careers.
As engineering educators, we need to constantly investigate new technologies to improve our curriculum. While the best way to implement 3-D printing—or even how to fit more course hours into engineering’s tight curricula—is not always clear, we can start by asking how much is 3-D printing used in non-CAD or design-based engineering disciplines. If there’s a fit, what is the appropriate level of implementation? One thing’s clear: This technology will only continue to transform industries and attract students to engineering. Let’s not squander this great opportunity to increase engagement, relevance, and value.
Frank A. Fuller is department chair and associate professor of engineering technology at Stark State College in North Canton, Ohio.