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3-D Printer Brings STEM Lessons to Life for Heritage Fourth-Graders


Students in Mike Elliott's fourth-grade math class at Heritage Elementary School have tackled an ambitious list of class projects over the past seven months.

They've designed basketball trophies and personalized plastic bus passes; they've put together plans for individualized stationary holders for every teacher in the building. All of this work required precise calculations and mathematical formulas. The process pushed the fourth-graders think in three dimensions to effectively envision three-dimensional objects.

Thanks to a 3-D printer, the majority of those plans have found tactile, physical shapes. Funded in part through a grant from the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, the printer has allowed this group of math students to engage in advanced design and manufacturing at every level. They spell out the data in a software program, they feed their designs into the machine and they see their ideas come to life in the form of plastic objects. It's a valuable entry into the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

"It's allowing kids to create things that couldn't have been created before – there's just no other way," Elliot said as the machine whirred in the background. "It engages kids in math and science in a way that I didn't receive as a kid … The students will talk about different math concepts – multiplication, division, fractions, decimals – in relation to 3-D software.

"Instead of having to grind kids through the process of learning math and applying it, they're able to do it naturally," he added.

Elliott applied for an Educator Initiative Grant at the outset of the school year through the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, which is dedicated to funding opportunities for all students in the district in innovative ways and helping build partnerships within the community. The turnaround was rapid enough that the printer arrived within less than two months, giving students the majority of the school year to learn the software and start designing and building their own projects.

"The manufacturer is a small company in Loveland, CO, and the students and I have talked about the differences in the way different economies function," Elliott said. "It's cool to be able to support a small Colorado business."

The machine, a Lulzbot Mini that fits neatly in a corner at the back of the classroom, has made a world of difference, Elliott insists. The printer runs virtually incessantly, as every one of the student has constant projects and designs they want to see rendered in real life.

"The only time it wasn't running was when we were testing, just because of the noise," Elliott said. "Every single day, students are asking, 'Can I get my project printed?'"

The students' progress has been rapid enough that even Elliott has a hard time keeping up. They've mastered the software available on their laptops, and Elliott is looking to offer a more advanced version to next year's crop of fourth-graders.

"My expertise was pretty limited in the beginning; I'm still not exactly where I want to be," Elliott said. "It's a great learning process for the kids. They're often able to solve their own problems – my goal is to facilitate the use of the software and keep out of the way."

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