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

within …