Using 3D Printing as an Instructional Tool to Improve Spatial Ability



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Background: Longitudinal studies conducted over the past 20 years have shown how important spatial ability is in predicting the tendency towards the STEM fields and also in creative production. Early attention to developing children’s spatial ability increases their achievement in math and science, and even nudges them towards STEM careers. Researchers suggest that spatial ability is malleable and can be improved with interventions, enrichment programs, and training activities. If the spatial ability of students can be boosted, it could improve students’ math and science achievement and also increase the likelihood of students pursuing STEM-related careers in the future. Engaging in 3D design and printing activities has been shown to have a positive impact on the development of spatial ability. 3D design and printing activities, when used as an intervention or enrichment for classroom learning, promises to enhance the spatial ability and therefore improve math and science achievement and interest in STEM-related careers. Purpose: The goal of this research study was to investigate the effects of a three- week summer camp featuring 3D design and printing activities on students’ spatial abilities. The study also investigated whether attendees’ gender and grade level play a role in the effects of the summer camp. The main research question for the study was: How does a three-week long summer camp featuring 3D printing activities affect elementary level students’ spatial ability? Sub-questions included: (a) Are there any gender differences in the pre-post gains of spatial ability test scores? (b) Are there any differences between lower grade level (3-4) and upper grade level (5-6) in the pre-post gains of spatial ability test scores? Methods: This intervention study used a single-group pretest and posttest design to measure the effectiveness of 3D printing activities on the spatial abilities of 50 elementary students in grades 3-6. Three distinct spatial ability tests were administered before and after the summer technology camp. Paired samples t test was used to compare the pre- and post-test scores to investigate the overall effect of the intervention on students’ spatial ability. Two-way mixed factorial ANOVA was used to compare the pre-post gains across gender and grade-level groups. Results: The intervention featuring 3D design and printing activities significantly improved students’ spatial test scores overall. Male students showed greater gains on two spatial tests (Mental Rotation Test and Shape Test) than female students. No differential pre-post gains were found for the two grade-level groups. Conclusion/Implications: 3D design and printing activities can be used as an intervention or enrichment to the curriculum as early as elementary school age to improve students’ spatial thinking. As other studies suggested, this would eventually improve students’ achievement levels on STEM subjects, and therefore increase the likelihood of students’ pursuing STEM-related careers.



3D printing, Spatial ability, Spatial thinking, STEM education, Digital fabrication, Technology in education, Elementary education, 3D printing in elementary school