A mathematician and a STEM education researcher use 3-D printing to teach Calculus
3 and see how it may change students’ attitudes towards math.
The majority of students in Calculus 3—multivariable calculus with technology—are
not math majors. They are mechanical engineers, civil engineers, biologists, computer
scientists. And those are people we want to make sure do their calculations correctly.
The two-dimensional and three-dimensional calculus they learn in calc 3 helps them
assess everything from water flowing through a dam, to heat transfer in materials,
to the mechanical stress on a gear.
That’s useful information, but everyone agrees: the hardest part of multivariable
calc is learning to grasp the shapes on the textbook page in real dimensions.
That’s why Cécile Piret, an assistant professor of mathematical sciences, and Joshua
Ellis, an assistant professor of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)
education, decided to have students 3-D print their homework.
“The goal is visualization,” says Piret. “We need to make the math tangible and show
how the real-world pieces work.”
“It’s easier to see all the sides—and it’s better than copying someone else’s drawing
from the board.”Julia Manzano, Carly Huggins, environmental engineering majors
Handheld Math Homework
The idea itself is not new. Ellis and Piret say that progressive math educators have
been calling for using 3-D printing in calculus classes for at least five years. The
problem is that few people have documented its effectiveness.
Julia Manzano and Carly Huggins examine a classmate’s pendulum clock, which includes
an escapement wheel, brass weight and stand.
Ellis is working with Piret and her classes to assess how well 3-D printed homework
assignments help teach key concepts. The students built a clock tower with a Graham
escapement and filled out surveys before and after the 3-D printing assignment to
gauge if their outlook on math changed. The researchers plan to publish their results