TPACK and 3D Printing

Over the last several months I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about 3D printing and learning. This was spurred on by the #MakerEDChallenge2 on the Thingiverse. The basic goal was to either create new designs that could be used as projects in an educational setting or to re-purpose old designs. In either case you were supposed to include a lesson description that goes with your thing.

Some of my entries were brand new things, but many were not. I realized that almost all of the things I’ve posted to the Thingiverse were created for some educational purpose. Many of these were for student centered labs or projects. However, I’ve only done a couple projects where I’ve had students designing and printing their own things (Wind Turbines, Phone Holder). So I thought about how I could turn some of my other designs into student centered 3D design projects and got a couple more entries together (Solve a Problem, Create a Device to Teach Physics).

Then I had a realization. Not all projects that involve a 3D printer need to be 3D printing projects. This revelation reminded me of TPACK.

Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by

TPACK is Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge. One of the main take aways is that we, in education, often look for ways to “Integrate Technology” into the curriculum. At best, this is sloppy thinking. At worst it can lead to lower outcomes. TPACK offers a different way of thinking.

Some of my education professors often said things like, “Content is King,” and, “Good teaching is good teaching. What works well in one area will work in any content area.” I believe thinking this way is just as sloppy as, “Integrate Technology.”

For me, TPACK starts with the idea of Pedagogical Content Knowledge. The idea behind PCK is that it is important to know the best techniques to use to teach your particular content. Basically, different ways of teaching will be better suited for different types of content. This seems obvious, but we often seem to forget it.

Specific pedagogies work better for specific content. I wouldn’t, for example, teach my electronics class the same way I teach physics. The content has some overlap, but all in all it is different enough that my entire approach needs to be different in each course in order to be maximally effective.

When we toss in the “T”, we’re saying the technology tools we have available give us new ways of teaching that simply weren’t available before. So rather than integrating technology for the sake of technology ask, “How does having a 3D printer in my room allow me to enhance old lessons or create new ones that would not have been possible before?”

With a 3D printer in my room, I as the teacher can create things that make it easier for students to ask and investigate questions that would have been:
My printer also gives me the ability to do projects with my students that let them:

Never ask the question, “How can I incorporate a 3D printer into my curriculum?” Instead you should think about, “What is possible now that a 3D pinter is in my classroom?” The distinction is subtle, but it is also powerful.