Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Using 3D Print Models in the Classroom

3D printing enjoys increasing adoption from instructors in higher education. Three-dimensional (3D) printing technology involves using computer-aided design (CAD) software to develop a model, or obtaining a 3D print file from a database or other source, and using a 3D printer to produce a physical object. Three-dimensional printers create models from a variety of materials, most commonly with the plastic PLA, a plant-based material made from starch.


There are several pedagogical advantages of 3D printing in the classroom. Primarily, students can observe features on 3D objects that are more difficult to visualize on paper or other 2D formats, and examine replicas of artifacts and art work of which originals are otherwise inaccessible or fragile. Three-dimensional models also increase the accessibility of course material to non-visual learners.  Ascending Bloom’s Taxonomy from observation and analysis to synthesis and creation, students can pursue open-ended exploration by developing their own models. Making 3D models allows for creative thought and problem-solving in assignments where students develop new tools or products, and can be a collaborative activity that builds students’ teamwork skills. 3D printing can be easily integrated into active learning, group work, and case-based learning.


Research continues into how 3D printing fosters learning in the classroom, but dual processing and cognitive load theories may be illuminating. Dual processing theory describes both the verbal and nonverbal processing of information (Paivio, 2007), and suggests that engagement through both verbal content and physical exploration with actual models may synergistically enhance learning. Handling 3D models may also reduce students’ cognitive load when learning by alleviating working memory constraints (Sweller, 1994).



Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics


  • Engineering – Students develop novel tools to solve problems. Example products are a 3D-printed hand for a patient who was involved in an accident, or a new component of an electronic device. Resource: The Bridge: Open Source Hardware (NAE, 2017)

  • Astronomy – Students explore NASA models to learn about various missions and decide on future directions for space exploration. Resource: NASA 3D Resources

Social Science and Humanities


  • Anthropology - Students examine 3D print models of mummified bodies to gain an understanding of cultural practices and biodiversity in antiquity. Examples include 3D prints of mummified birds obtained through CT scans, or scans of burial sites obtained through photogrammetry. Resource: The Role of 3D Printing in Biological Anthropology (Allard, 2006)


3D Model Databases and Repositories


  • HHMI BioInteractive - 3D print model database with models linked to related videos, classroom activities, and other curricular content.

  • Thingiverse Education – 3D print model database that includes scaffolded learning activities. Searches can be filtered for university-level content.

  • 3D Model 3B – Database of neurons with varying morphologies.


Pedagogical Considerations


  • Explore databases - Instructors can peruse open databases to determine whether 3D models have the potential to meet learning outcomes. See example databases above.

  • Explore Lesson Plans - If designing activities de novo or searching for relevant examples, instructors can consider reviewing lessons in databases such as Thingiverse Education for ideas.

  • Enrich Active Learning - 3D printing helps students not only hear and visualize content, but also handle, inspect, analyze, and even create it through more active engagements with knowledge. 3D printing can enhance lectures through tactile examples, think-pair-share activities, and pass-arounds; give student groups more detailed or experiential problems and scenarios; and help large classes feel smaller through hands-on interaction with a shared object and instructor tool. Instructors can learn more about 3D printing and active learning by reading “How to Design a Classroom Activity that Integrates 3D Print Models with Active Learning,” in CourseSource. 

  • Maintain Access - Instructors should ensure that all students have the opportunity to handle 3D models. If performing a demonstration with a 3D-printed object, instructors can pass it around and let students know where it will be available (e.g. office, course reserves, etc.). If using group activities, instructors should provide guidelines and guidance that ensures all students are able to examine the model.

Designing 3D Model Files


  • Download free software to use for design - Autodesk’s Maya and Meshmixer can be downloaded and used free of charge. SketchUp Free can also be used for 3D design. Resources: Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Meshmixer, SketchUp Free.

Printing Models


  • Prepare the model for printing - Several free pieces of software, such as Print Studio and Meshmixer, allow users to import a model, fix any errors, and export a file to a printer. Resources: Autodesk PrintStudio; Autodesk Meshmixer

  • Manage time and resources - Small changes in size and object density can have large effects on the time and amount of printing resources needed. Instructors can make adjustments in software to manage object size and density.

  • Monitor the model while printing - Prints can fail for a number of reasons, and it may take a few attempts to be successful. Errors commonly occur in the beginning of the printing process, so monitoring the print is key to detecting misprints early.


Lipson, H., & Kurman, M. (2013). Fabricated: The new world of 3D printing. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley & Sons.


Paivio, A. (2007). Mind and its evolution: A dual coding theoretical approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Pryor, S. (2014). Implementing a 3D Printing Service in an Academic Library. Journal of Library Administration, 54(1), 1-10.


Sweller J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4, 295-312.


Vaccarezza, M., & Papa, V. (2015). 3D printing: A valuable resource in human anatomy education.Anatomical science international,90(1), 64-65.


YSoft Corporation. (2017). 3D Printing in Education: 2016 Report Card.