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Teaching Math with 3D Printers

In fifth grade math three-dimensional shapes, volume, and capacity are major concepts. Teaching students about three-dimensional concepts on a flat piece of paper is extremely difficult for kinesthetic and tactile learners. Teachers will use manipulatives and other tools to help students understand concepts.

Incorporating 3D design through Tinkercad and 3D printers is a new way to help students understand concepts on a different level. In this project, students were forced to think about volume, capacity, area, and measurement conversions in an authentic problem based learning environment.

Project Objective:

Create a container that is large enough to hold between 12-14 marbles. The container must:

  • Be large enough so that the marbles are not above the rim

  • The container may not hold more than 15 marbles, thus creating wasted space and filament to print

  • The base of the container may not have an area larger than 10 cm2

Daily Objectives and Planning:

  • Each day of work your group needs to answer the following questions:

  • What do we already know?

  • What do we need to figure out next and how will we do that?

  • How will we know if what we learned is accurate?

  • How are we going to organize our work and discoveries?

  • What do we do next?


Implementing mini-lessons is a very important aspect of project based learning. Teachers need to provide meaningful information to students. These lessons could be for the whole class, or with small groups. I personally like using the mini-lessons in small groups when the information will be helpful for the students. Some important mini-lessons for this project include:

  • Determining area of rectangles and circles

  • Creating different dimensions with the same area

  • Measuring volume of a sphere with water displacement

  • Determining interior and exterior measurements

  • 3D CAD design.

Daily Look of the Classroom:

The students would break right into their project groups and start working. My role as the classroom facilitator was to visit each group with engaging questions and prepared mini-lessons listed above. It was incredibly important to prepare questions to evoke the proper realizations and conclusions from the students. My craft was in the timing. I needed to time the questions so the students had productive struggle but could reach the realizations themselves. The mini-lessons had to be timed with there immeidate needs. The groups were working at different paces, and reaching different conclusions at different times; whole group mini-lessons would not work well.

Limited devices:

This project does not focus on technology or 3D printers. Ninety-percent of the project was spent in the prototyping and design phase. The students used paper, tape, cardboard, LEGOs, toilet paper holder, and anything else they could find in the room or at home. Once they finally designed a prototype they were confident in, they needed to draw a sketch with all the interior and exterior dimensions. By the time they were ready for the computer, the design process took about 20-30 minutes. The last step is to load up the printer, and again, I only had 1 printer.

What if I don't have a 3D printer?

If you don't have a printer, you could still do this project. However, the actual testing of the printed design was the best part of the project, I'm not going to lie. That being said, start integrating 3D design in into your instruction. You can have the students learn volume through actual 3D shapes.

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