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Students create snowflakes while learning 3D printing technology

They say no two snowflakes look alike.

That’s true both in nature and in Diana Fenton’s elementary science content course at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. In that class this semester, students are being tasked with using 3D printer technology to create individual and unique snowflake models.

It’s part of a continuing effort Fenton, an associate professor of education, has undertaken to teach students how to use technology they will likely one day integrate into classrooms of their own.

“Every semester I do a challenge,” Fenton said. “In the past we’ve done things like instruments. But the snowflake came about because I start the semester with phases of matter. I’d been out skiing and it was snowing. When I got back to my car, I was just amazed by the snowflakes that were just sticking to my windows. It struck a chord.

“3D printing is in every industry right now,” she continued. “From architecture to food to medicine to you name it. Because most of my students are going to be preservice teachers, this is a way to show them how they can integrate this technology into, say, an engineering project. Or how they can have students create something that’s tied to a content area standard instead of just saying ‘We have a 3D printer in our building. Let’s print bunnies!’

“This is learning how to print something that has an application to science.”

Fenton’s students are using Tinkercad, a free web app for 3D design, electronics and coding. They start by making a drawing, taking the measurements and creating designs by dragging and dropping shapes. Along the way, they are blogging their steps to both authenticate their work and gain experience with blog writing as a teaching tool.

In addition, they’re using Tinkercad’s code blocking feature as a second method of design, allowing them to pick up coding skills as well.

“Why learn these skills?” Fenton said. “Because we need problem solvers. We need creation and creativity. We need to not necesarrily be so focused on memorizing facts. But more on being able to think. And this causes them to think. It’s not something they can just memorize and move on from.”

Her students seem to be enjoying the experience so far.

“I think it’s kind of cool to be exposed to stuff like this because you never know when in the future you might be able to use it,” said sophomore Hannah Schneider, an elementary education major. “These are really valuable skills to have.”

Schneider said it took her a little time to pick up the program, but now that she has, the project is taking off.

“At first it was kind of hard,” she said. “I spent a few hours in my room messing with it and figuring out how everything works. Diana also had some YouTube videos we could watch that helped a lot.

“(My snowflake) is looking a lot better now. I had a what I called my trials. The very first one was really bad. But then they slowly started improving.”

That’s the result Fenton is hoping for.

“This is an authentic way for them to learn skills they need to have,” she said. “I don’t want our students to leave here and go into a school that has these tools, but they don’t know how to use them.

“Ultimately, it isn’t really about 3D printing, per se. It’s important they learn engineering, but it’s more about teaching them not to be afraid of technology and learning how they might be able to integrate it in a meaningful way.”

Star Wars snowflake

Above is a Star Wars themed 3D snowflake designed by Hannah Schneider, a sophomore elementary education major.

Beth Vescio's snowflake

Above is a 3D plan for a snowflake designed by Beth Vescio, a junior history major, in Diana Fenton’s elementary science content course at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. 


This is an example of a 3D printed snowflake.

3D printer

This is the 3D printer students use to produce the snowflakes. There will be similar devices available in their schools once they begin their teaching careers.