In June, Amanda Brown and JoMarie Price, teachers at Westwood Elementary School in Abbeville County, went to the Center for Manufacturing Innovation at Greenville Technical College. The state Department of Education was hosting a four-day summer institute to train teachers to integrate 3D printers into their classes. Brown didn’t know it at the time, but when the institute ended, she would get to take the printer she had been using back to Abbeville. She has been using it since.

The point of the institute was simple, per the memorandum inviting teachers to attend: give them another tool they could use when teaching students the “engineering design process.”

That process, according to the state’s manual outlining academic standards for science, “involves a series of iterative steps used to solve a problem and often leads to the development of a new or improved technology.”

Indeed, Brown insists her students are “not just printing out novel little cutesy things.”

Owen Henderson’s technology — a slide — wasn’t new, but he did have to iterate in order to make one that fit the criteria Brown had given her third-graders: a plastic marble had to roll down slides they had made from paper and tape without bouncing when it hit the table.

Initially, his slide had a hitch the marble would get caught on when it rolled down. With a little bit of tape, however, he fixed that.

Cameron Morris’s slide was too steep; his marble would bounce when it hit the table. With some tweaking, he was able to make his work as well.

The students did not just make their slides. They also made the marbles.

The first marble they made was too small, Morris said. Others were too flat, or too tall. Eventually, after a series of tweaks on the software they use to design 3D printed objects, they made a marble that fit their needs.

The limited use of 3D printing in any given lesson is not just pedagogical, but practical.

One marble takes about an hour to print, Brown said. “It’s time consuming and it can be expensive.”

One large spool of plastic on the website of MakerBot — the company that makes the model used in Brown’s classroom, the Replicator+ — costs $46. Brown has yet to go through a single spool, but only because the Department of Education provided a 10-pack with different colors along with the printer itself.

Westwood isn’t the only school in the Lakelands to have a 3D printer. In Greenwood County School District 50, Greenwood High School has one, and the Russell Technology Center – jointly operated by districts 50, 51 and 52 — has three.

Charles Johnson, a teacher at the Russell Technology Center, uses 3D printers in his introductory and advanced engineering classes. Incorporating them into his curriculum gives students a tangible skill that appeals to some local employers, some of which — including Lonza and Eaton — use 3D modeling programs. But 3D printing isn’t limited to architects and engineers.

Artists and chefs use them as well, Johnson said. Doctors can print “body parts to see if they’re going to fit inside someone’s body” before surgery.

“It’s the same thing as a Pixar movie,” Josh Buchanan, who uses 3D printers in his aerospace engineering class at Emerald High School, said. “You’re building 3D objects much in the same way they are.”

Buchanan’s students design nose cones for rockets and seats, airfoils and wing struts for airplanes.

All of the teachers who spoke to the Index-Journal said the utility lies not just in giving students the opportunity to design an object, but to make that work tangible.

“The novelty kind of wears off when you have to use it for something real,” Buchanan said. “But they enjoy it.”

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.