Bridging the social and environmental dimensions of global sustainability in STEM education with additive manufacturing

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Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Department of Social Sciences


3D printing technologies based on an open source model offer a tool for distributed manufacturing and individual customization of printed goods, diminishing the environmental externalities associated with the global transport of goods, the production of goods based on raw material extraction, and production waste. They also make it possible to address issues of sustainable development and the environmental impacts of industrial development simultaneously via innovative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, offering appropriate technologies for use in non-industrial locales. This chapter reports on a university course where students built their own 3D printers, used them to print items, learned about how 3D printers can help minimize the environmental externalities of production and address issues of environmental sustainability, and were introduced to social issues related to inequality of access to material goods. Students were asked to participate in a survey and a follow-up interview about their experience in the class. Results suggest that this course encouraged students to think about the environmental benefits of distributed manufacturing as well as about the human dimensions of sustainability-related to global inequalities of access to manufactured goods. The course also helped students feel like they could work to address environmental problems and social issues in their future engineering careers. Using 3D printing technologies in an active learning STEMeducation environment can engage engineering students with both the environmental and social issues that will shape the challenges they face as future industrial designers and manufacturers.

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Integrating 3D Printing into Teaching and Learning