Constructing Knowledge and Connecting Curricula with Dr. Thornburg and 3D Printing

Dr. Thornburg is the founder and Director of Global Operations for the Thornburg Center and an award-winning Futurist, author, and consultant. He recently authored “The Invent to Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom: Recipes for Success” with Norma Thornburg and Sara Armstrong.

Learning In Style

Studies have shown that students have different learning styles. Some may learn visually, some aurally, and some kinetically. Dr. Thornburg realizes that students all learn differently, also recognizing that “students learn best when they are constructors of their own knowledge.” For this reason, Dr. Thornburg has focused on creating materials that assist educators in encouraging their students to construct knowledge and “become comfortable with learning to become makers.”

“I grew up with a dad who tinkered. He enjoyed woodworking, like making clocks from scratch using wooden gears. I grew up in an environment with plenty of resources, and when I went to school, there were plentiful opportunities for students to build. Unfortunately, when computers were introduced into schools, computer labs replaced shops and took away the hands-on opportunities. Now, we are facing a generation of kids who haven’t grown up building stuff.”

Dr. Thornburg explains, “my focus is on helping educators learn to use technology in good ways in their classroom. Currently, there is increased interest in, and mandate of, engineering in teaching. Teachers don’t have a clue on how to include engineering, since many don’t have a background in it. They don’t know how to approach the topic. I’m seeing that 3D printing is a way to address engineering in a way that these teachers are comfortable with.”

Constructing Knowledge

“Professor Seymour Papert, from MIT, was a big advocate of constructivism, a process by which kids create models of learning in their minds. When a student builds artifacts separate from him or herself of what they learn, it has a lasting impact. It doesn’t matter if it is a sandcastle or poem; it being external to the learner is the critical element. He calls this creation of artifacts constructionism since it involves actually making something.”

“I find in workshops, that as soon as the 3D printer gets started, people go nuts! They watch something they designed be built. To them, it’s a real plus: knowing something that started in their mind is now becoming real. One student once told Dr. Papert ‘I’m having hard fun.’ The concept of hard fun is such a good one. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it is less fun.”

Invent to Learn: The Curricular Connections

Thornburg’s book provides 18 projects designed to help teachers instruct with 3D design in a way that connects to curriculum and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Dr. Thornburg's book, available on
Dr. Thornburg’s book, available on

“It’s extremely important to show teachers the curricular connections. Their day is full and they have tons of requirements, as-is. Their first reaction to 3D printing might be, ‘when will I find time for this?!’ They agree that meeting objectives with a 3D printer would be great, but they simply don’t know how to do this.”

“Therefore, without the prerequisite staff development, nothing with happen. Teachers need the opportunity to learn to design and 3D print, which requires support from outsiders like myself who can come in and take them step-by-step through this process. The design element is essential, and the actual printing is reward.”

“In our workshops, we toss attendees into a ‘life-or-death’ design project and tell them to work together to solve the crisis. Afterward, we ask what subject areas they encounter, and get responses that include engineering, physics, mathematics, life sciences, etc. Just about any subject can benefit from using 3D tools: for language arts, you can build dioramas with 3D prints of things they’re reading about, which can involve some critical thinking of how they interpret the readings and leads back to that theory of constructivism. In history, students can design a building according to the architecture of the time and place they study, which can lead to a conversation about why that era was so interested in certain things (materials, shapes, etc.). Many people focus on how 3D printing involves math and science – because it is so clear that it can help bring something theoretical to real life – but 3D printing can be used for much, much more.”

“The response to my workshops and book has been positive. At the CUE conference in Palm Springs, people were sitting on the floor and there was a line outside into the hall, all because of topic of 3D printing. People said they were “blown away” by the presentation. Not a single teacher has gone through a workshop without saying ‘we need one of these for our kids.’ It engages kids who are not otherwise engaged in school.”

More Than a Hammer

“I like using multiple design tools in 3D printing, because as Maslow says, ‘if all you have is a hammer, you will view everything as a nail.’ I really like SketchUp and what Bonnie Roskes has done with it. I also like MeshMixer and OpenSCAD. Each program allows you to design things in different ways, whether building out of geometric primitives, sculpting out of virtual clay, or computing a shape using mathematics. Dr. Thornburg's Granddaughter Making TilesI find myself going back and forth with tools, thinking to myself ‘what tool lets me do what I want with the greatest ease?’ I’m currently writing a book on coding language for 3D projects. Coding is now a big topic in American Education. Kids have no idea how computers learn to do the things they do.”

In the image, Dr. Thornburg’s granddaughter is using 3D printed stamps to create tiles. Dr. Thornburg helped her create the stamps by using 3D design tools, and of course, the Afinia 3D printer. Working with kids on projects like these provide great opportunity to for them to learn about the design tools available and how 3D printing works. Click the image to view the video.

The Holodeck

Dr. Thornburg is also the inventor of the educational holodeck. It was inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation and is an empty classroom that transforms into an interactive learning environment based on what it being taught. It is based on idea of inquiry-driven, project-based learning. Students want to ask more questions, are more engaged, and remember more of what they’ve learned.”

A technological classroom such as the holodeck also helps students learn how to use technology responsibly. “Students are taking control of their informational tools, they are bringing electronic devices to school. They may understand how to use these devices mechanically, but they may not know how to judge the value or accuracy of information they are finding. Google can provide data and information, but that doesn’t mean it actually provides knowledge or understanding.”

“I love using 3D printing in my holodeck classroom. In our Mission to Mars project, we set up the classroom like a spaceship and I tell my students there is a leak in the ship and they have one hour before we start losing oxygen and we must design something, and design it NOW!”

Dr. Thornburg, the Futurist

“I am a futurist. I look at trends and explain what these trends mean for the future. And I think the future for Afinia can look really, really good. I’ve been very happy with the Afinia, and the support (especially from John Westrum) has been terrific. Any time I have a hiccup with the machine – which is rare – it has been taken care of promptly. Because I get to work with kids and teachers I get to continue to be a kid myself and play with this stuff. I normally have something cookin’ most of the time downstairs!”

“I will be doing a workshop in Aurora, IL for the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and for the community, setting the stage to show how we are at a new cusp of industrial revolution with 3D printing. It’s all about doing new things. Not doing old things in new ways. The power of technology is to use it to do things we couldn’t do before at all, not just to do things differently.”