Friday, February 24, 2017

Using SketchUp with 3D Printing

Today's blogger, Brian Bobbitt, is a high school engineering teacher at North High School in Evansville, Indiana. Brian has experience working with 3D printing and engineering across the K-12 realm of education. Brian has led many other educators in developing STEM programs and creating Maker Spaces. In December of 2016, Brian published his first book, 3D Printing Made Simple for Education. The book can be found at:

Often I am asked about how to get students and schools involved and engaged in 3D printing. I see many educators throughout the year at different conferences when I present 3D printing. Throughout the different conferences I present at I am most often asked, “How can I afford a 3D printer for my students?” I believe it would be better to ask this question, “Why do I need a 3D printer for my students?’

Educators are aware that kids like to create. Honestly, that’s what brought my attention to 3D printing several years ago. When I first started 3D printing, I thought about how I could actually integrate state standards and 3D printing. I began taking a look at all of the depth of knowledge charts. It wasn’t long before I realized how much high level thinking adding a 3D printer could do for us. I quickly learned that we create, construct, apply knowledge, problem solve, connect, and design as a result of this new technological marvel.

However, I soon realized that a 3D printer was a tool and not a solution. The 3D printer is simply a machine that can create a physical model. The 3D printer is not an idea generator or a problem solver without a person being the driving force. As a result, one of the first things I want students to know is a design process. A way to solve problems becomes increasingly important for students – even after they leave my class. I also subscribe to the philosophy that less is more. Therefore, there must be a process simple enough for students to remember, apply, and adapt. Typically, I would use something like this:
  1. Listen and ask questions about the problem
  2. Define and state the problem
  3. Research
  4. Sketch possibilities
  5. Choose an idea
  6. Develop a prototype
  7. Submit to client for feedback
  8. Make necessary adjustments
  9. Market and present the solution
A 3D printer really doesn’t fit into the design process until step 6, which is where we are developing a prototype. However, it is also during this step that we take ideas and sketches into a more formal CAD program. One program I recommend for those running Maker Spaces and working with younger children is SketchUp. I usually recommend SketchUp because it’s free and the learning curve isn’t too steep. Additionally, I’ve found that once students begin using it, they want to show everyone. SketchUp can be used at home on most computers. There is even an online version located at:

Generally, when I teach SketchUp, the first step is to get all of our screens looking alike. I have students select all of the same toolbars. They can do this by clicking on “View”, and then “Toolbars”. I have them put check marks by “Large Tool Set,” “Standard,” and “Views.” These 3 items will allow them to do every basic feature. Along with more advanced functions later.

I like to teach the basic processes first, and then move into more advanced functions. I would most likely lead off with showing students how to create a 2D rectangle or circle. The next step would be to show students how to make it 3D using the Push/Pull tool. Next, we would spend some time working with navigational commands such as rotate, pan, and zoom. The navigational commands allow us to better see our designs and add more elements.

Once students are familiar with the setup and are able to draw a 2D shape and push/pull it into a 3D shape I would move onto multiple projections or extrusions. A multiple projection or extrusion is when we have more than 1 shape in 3D format. The first picture below is a single extrusion of a simple rectangular cube. The second picture shows a multiple extrusion.

It is important to let students “play” a bit with multiple extrusions so they can gain more experience. Not only that, but students learn to use the rotate, zoom, and pan buttons more naturally as they need these to look at the different views.

The next thing I do with students, is try and show some relevance. We begin creating a house. This helps students see how SketchUp can be used to create everyday objects. The house also provides students a chance to further practice all the tools we’ve used thus far. A good friend of mine once called this concept, “Jedi Mind Tricks.” That is, have students do the work without the realization they are learning a new skill.

Once students have the house complete we move onto more advanced skills such as the follow me command. I’ll start by creating a simple tube. For my younger students I tell them we are going to design a tubular slide. Below is a screenshot of a student who has created a ring using the follow me command.

As students become more comfortable with SketchUp, I begin to open more doors in the design world. Next, I would have a discussion and demonstrate design constraints. To summarize constraints quickly, these are rules/guidelines that must be followed within the design. For example, a design constraint might be that the student generated idea or component has to be able to rotate 360°. Another example might be for the object to have a charging port or USB interface. These examples are more useful for the younger inventor. As students become more proficient, I will eventually provide specific constraints. For instance, the overall design must fit within a 3” cube.

To further drive the concept of design constraints, I will have the students develop their own. I usually pick something else we will be doing further down the road in class. I’ve had students choose to develop vehicles, robots, houses, castles, desktop organizers, etc. The one that gets the most attention is usually a robot. Below is a screenshot of some design constraints that a group of 3rd - 5th graders developed during one of our summer creativity camps.

As one can see, there are several things that need to happen in order to fully understand taking an idea from a concept to a reality. SketchUp is one of many tools available to help students generate and create ideas. Furthermore, before SketchUp or any other design program is used, it is imperative to establish some sort of design process. After all, our job as educators is to create a life-long learner capable of developing solutions and solving any problem they encounter.

For more information, please feel free to contact me using I am always looking to collaborate with other teachers as well as other classrooms. My main mission is to create outstanding students along with growing areas of STEM education for all students.

**SketchUp is free for all, but the SketchUpPro Statewide K-12 License Grant gives public schools in Indiana the opportunity to receive SketchUp Pro for free for use in classrooms and labs. Go to for more information.

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