Thinking 3D

Our world has existed in three dimensions for as long as time has existed, but it's only in recent times that we have become really enamoured with the idea of representing the world in 3 dimensions. This is going to become increasingly important for students in our schools. There has been lots of talk, for instance, about the making of 3D movie,s which are becoming quite commonplace, but there's more to thinking in 3D than simply 3D movies.

Drivers for this trend

  • Increase in need for 3D thinking in employment
  • Common use of 3D representations (movies, printers, games)
  • Growth of consumer level 3D tools and applications
  • Adoption of 3D.
  • 3D is a more authentic way to learn about the world because the world is 3D!
  • 3D gives the chance to work in the abstract. Virtual & imaginary worlds.

3D environments in education

Environments such as Minecraft are being used increasingly in education to provide opportunities for 3D representation of the world in a similar way to how children used to use Lego blocks. There are two significant benefits:

  1. students can work collaboratively with others on a global scale
  2. students can explore those worlds to incorporate infrastructure such as power and sewage systems, if they are building a world or the doors and windows that open in a building, and so forth.

In the world of 3D they cannot only build and represent walls, they can carry out walk-throughs to see what that representation will really be like.

3D Printers

Another area where 3D thinking is beginning to impact on education is through the development of 3D printers. We have had software such as Google Sketchup, freely available, that allows children to design and create and make things in 3D.  Now with the affordability of 3D printers we can see those things represented in simple ways using ordinary polymers instead of ink and paper.

And 3D printing is being explored to do much more than just the things that children might create in schools. There are now the first examples of 3D manufacturing plants that will ultimately result in 3D items being able to be printed at home.  For example if you broke the handle off your refrigerator you could simply go online, order a new one and it would print in 3D ready for you to screw on. Another area is the food industry where we see experimentation with the 3D printing of food, which raises all sorts of interesting and potentially exciting issues around the future of nutrition, and gaining access to the things we need to keep our bodies alive.

Medical field use of 3D and its ethical implications for education

The medical field is yet another area where 3 dimensional printing is having huge impact. We are seeing now 3D printing being used to formulate transplanted bone structures for example, and we are seeing the early adoption of 3D printing that might be used in the formation of biological components such as kidneys or livers, which could then be transplanted into human beings. Naturally there are ethical and social concerns that we need to take into account, and it is part of our responsibility as educators to be thinking about and raising these issues.

The two 3D areas to consider in education

In summary the two key areas I think we should be considering when considering thinking in 3D. The first is thinking about opportunities for students to experience the use of tools that will allow them to think in 3D, including the ethics and the social responsibility concerns. Secondly we need to be thinking about how we can appropriate 3D imagery into our teaching and learning now, and help to prepare students in this area as they prepare to go out to live and work in an increasingly digital world.


  • What priority do you give to providing 3D learning experiences for your students?
  • What sorts of experiences could you provide right now… and into the future?
  • What challenges does thinking in 3D raise in terms of assessment? How can these be resolved?
  • How many opportunities do students have to create 3D objects as evidence of their learning? 3D model of a house? A frog? An ecosystem?

Learn, participate, and share

CORE staff are using Bundlr to collate links to articles and information relating to thinking in 3D in a Bundlr collection. There is the option for you to choose to follow the growing collection over the next few months.