From Red Room to Digital Studio: Inclusion of 3D Printers in Arts Education

When the topic of 3D printers arise in passing, what connotations instantly surface in your mind? Perhaps you may think of NASA’s plans to print spare parts in zero gravity, robotics gadgets, or the architectural models of drafting students. But does the art classroom at your elementary school come to mind? Research partners Sean Justice and Marta Cabral of the Art and Art Education department are working to advocate use of 3D printers in such educational spaces, as a viable artistic medium.

Children from the Rita Gold Center watching the printer at work.

Within the Digital Media Studio on the basement level of Thorndike Hall, Art and Art Education students currently print with the second editions of the Cube, by Cubify, and the Replicator, a MakerBot product. These machines are primarily available for graduate students in Sean Justice’s course on digital fabrication, but for over a year now they have also been used in a pilot project by preschool children from TC’s Rita Gold Early Childhood Education Center. When recounting the origins of his current research with Marta Cabral, an interdisciplinary TC student studying art and early education, Sean said that the project started quite informally. The children saw a video he had produced about the first generation of 3D printers which was on display in the Macy Gallery, and then expressed an interest to see the machines themselves.

An art piece printed in the Digital Media Studio. 3D printing is emerging as an artistic medium which inspires students of all ages.

When the children were first brought to the studio, Sean says he “was curious if the kids would understand a two-dimensional computer image being converted into the three-dimensional object,” as some adults struggle to conceptualize this. But if the children remained interested once seeing the printing process, Sean says that “the deeper question for both [he and Marta] was whether or not these digital 3D lessons would impart any kind of change, or educational impact.” It soon became clear that their young pupils not only remained engaged in the project, but developed narratives out of their printed art work. As is the case for the creative process of children with other artistic media, they imagine a story around their printed pieces. The initially informal trial lessons of Sean and Marta thus proved that young children can indeed understand and be creatively inspired by 3D printers.

A student comparing the sketches in his drawing book to the 3D printer design on MakerBot software.

Sean strongly believes that 3D printers are malleable enough in design to transcend their more common uses in science. He emphasizes that it is the responsibility of arts educators like he and Marta “to bring the vision of these printers into schools. The notion that these [printers] could be comparable to the process of finger painting is not even an option [for some teachers].” Yet the integration of 3D printers into art classrooms would ultimately serve to expand the media options available for student inspiration.

Perhaps falsely viewed as dangerous, complicated machines, the 3D printers are actually quite safe and increasingly user friendly. In Makerbot’s Replicator 2, the PLA filament, a renewable bio-plastic available in a myriad of colors, is heated to approximately 230 degrees Celsius. The plastic is then pushed through the metal ring of an extruder and onto the printer’s building platform. Making two-dimensional concepts materialize as three-dimensional art is truly that simple: configure your computer model, press print, and watch plastic being poured with precision to realize your designs!

Sean is currently the manager of the Digital Media Studio at TC and teaches as an adjunct instructor for the Art and Art Education department. In writing his dissertation titled Learning to Teach in the Digital Age, his research focuses on how both digital networks and digital media such as printers can be made more accessible to facilitate future changes in learning environments. Though he conducts his research from a neutral perspective, Sean hopes that “digital networks can create environments that are rich and participatory and can strongly effect education.” Furthermore, he hopes that the spreading technology of 3D printers will be accepted in education and valued, just as a paintbrush or kiln, as a tool for artistic creation.

By Alyssa Foster

Arts & Humanities Writer

For more information about the technical capabilities and software for the Makerbot printers, please visit  their website via this link.

For a look at Sean Justice’s photography, courses, and other work, please visit his website at