Enhancing Spatial Reasoning Abilities: The Power of 3D Printing in Education


For more than a decade Airwolf 3D has been providing teachers with equipment, supplies and support. This is long enough for us to see elementary school students use our printers and adults purchase our equipment for their professional jobs!  Looking back, one memorable event was “Build Day” – a remarkable opportunity for teachers to build 3D printers for their classrooms and to become intimately familiar with this technology. (watch the full video here).

Indeed, over the past 11 years, we have seen 3D printing spark imaginations and sharpen skills.  In this blog series, we share tips, recent research findings, and tribal knowledge accumulated from observing 3D printers in schools.  The focus of this blog is spatial reasoning.

spatial reasoning

Source: Psychometric Success

What is spatial reasoning and why is it important?

“Spatial ability, defined by a capacity for mentally generating, rotating, and transforming visual images, is one of the three specific cognitive abilities most important for developing expertise in learning and work settings.” The other most important abilities are quantitative and verbal ability.

(Park & Lubinski, 2010)

Generally speaking, these three abilities are related such that a student with strong quantitative ability is likely to demonstrate strong verbal and spatial ability, however, this is not always the case.  While students good with words and numbers are likely to get noticed in tests like the SAT, those with spatial abilities might not get recognized through standardized testing.  In the study “Spatial Ability: A Neglected Talent in Educational and Occupational Settings”, researchers found: 

“Current assessment practices in education and industry lead to a substantial missed opportunity. Many spatially talented adolescents, for example, may never approach their full potential due to a lack of opportunities to develop their skills. A great loss occurs at talent searches that identify intellectually precocious young adolescents.”

(Kell & Lubinski, 2013)

You can read more on this topic here “We Are Leaving ‘Lost Einsteins’ Behind?”(.Edsall, n.d.)

verbal quantitative spacial reasoning cognitive abilities

Societal Effects

Sadly, another study found that ignoring spatial abilities can cause problems.  This finding is statistically illustrated in “Spatially gifted, academically inconvenienced: Spatially talented students experience less academic engagement and more behavioural issues than other talented students.” (Lakin & Wai, 2020).  Neglecting the development and recognition of spatial abilities can lead to challenges including unfulfilled potential, educational disconnect, reduced confidence, and decreased skills.  

The Changing Face of High School Education and Hands-On Learning

Three decades ago, most high school students in the US had more opportunities to express their spatial ability through hands-on courses in auto mechanics, home economics, and/or woodshop. Some schools, like mine, went so far as to make these mandatory – for everyone!  (I recall making a small rocking chair in woodshop class and sewing a tote bag in home economics).  The beauty of these mandatory old-school offerings is that together, they formed a type of “net” in which all students could work with their spatial abilities for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, hands-on learning in high school is disappearing.  

“Auto shops were once part of schools’ vocational education offerings, along with wood shop, home economics, metal shop and other career training courses, but began declining about 30 years ago”,

according to EdSource and the National Center for Educational Statistics

Some administrators will argue society has moved past the need for vocational training. Others will tell parents that home economics, auto shop and woodshop are being replaced with better learning options as part of specialized vocational programs, like Career Technical Education (CTE) and Vex Robotics.  We hope the federal government will increase funding for these critical programs. Students lucky enough to take these courses can learn advanced computer-aided drafting and prototyping.  However, not all students have access to these courses, so the “net” is gone and as a result most high school students miss out on a full semester of hands-on learning.

Source: Figure 1. Average number of credits earned in each subject area by public high school graduates, National Center for Educational Statistics

How can 3D printing significantly elevate students’ spatial reasoning capabilities?

On the bright side, teachers find 3D printers are a cost-efficient learning aid promoting engagement and tactile learning for all students.  Some parents and teachers believe a 3D printer in the classroom, combined with other tools, can serve as the new “net”. It is not a tool limited to engineering courses, it is used by our Spanish and History teachers too! These students create 3D models bridging various subjects and promote tactile learning. 

Tactile Learning: 

By 3D printing their models, students go beyond a 2D image on a screen and come face to face with their own tangible parts. In this real-life example, “ELECTORAL MADNESS” teachers Liz Ramos and John Stevens use a 3D printed electoral map to help students understand the U.S. voting system and think critically about its merits and drawbacks.

3D Printed Electoral Map
Credit: Chris Krueger

Visualization -> Translate Skills: 

3D printing gives students the opportunity to go from conceptualization to reality. The assignment of designing requires students to “visualize” their ideas and try to “translate” them into real-world objects. They start by conceptualizing the design on a computer screen, but the magic happens when it is transformed into a physical part they can hold and inspect.  Our teachers report this is often an “AHA!” moment for many students. In this moment they bridge the gap between abstraction and creation. Most importantly they have a newfound confidence in their visualization skills!

3d printers in classroom incite imagination in students

Problem Solving: 

In a quantitative study, teachers report students working on 3D printing projects developed numerous skills including creativity, technology literacy, problem-solving, self-directed learning, critical thinking and perseverance. (Trust & Maloy, 2017)

If you have a 3D printer in your classroom, then you already know 3D printing is filled with challenges waiting to be solved. From drafting original designs to producing successful 3D prints in complicated materials, students encounter hurdles requiring hands-on engagement and spatial problem-solving skills.  Many teachers see these challenges as opportunities for growth. For example, when students are challenged with printing a complex geometric model, they engage in troubleshooting: (1) analyze the problem, (2) identify potential solutions, and (3) iterate until they get the desired outcome. Practicing this 3-step process is necessary to build resilience and develop a creative problem-solving mindset.  You can see an example of these 3 steps in the design process used in Mr. Gupton’s classroom here.

The Choice is Clear

The choice is clear: to fully prepare students for the cognitive demands of a modern world, every teacher should have access to a 3D printer. As we look ahead, let’s work together to ensure every student has the opportunity to unlock their full potential.  We are standing by with technical assistance, training, and educational discounts at info@airwolf3d.com

Tips and Inspiration:

Add a Makerspace:  Professor Jonathan Frey, Director of Makerspaces at William and Mary, demonstrates how students and staff utilize additive manufacturing and gives insight into how this technology is implemented in different departments on campus. From biology to engineering, 3D printers are nearly everywhere.

The main William and Mary EVO printer farm is located in Earl Gregg Swen Library.

Start a Maker Challenge:  The ocMaker Challenge is no ordinary science fair. Instead, this engaging educational event is an integrated STEM project that incorporates elements of art and design by requiring students to design and manufacture a product. The ocMaker Challenge prompt is, “Design and build, or significantly repurpose, a product that will solve a problem, need or want.”  We offer a maker challenge package.

Master your 3D Printer:  Did you know that you can take our courses at Airwolf3dU?  It is our Additive Manufacturing Online Learning System. Try it now for free.

Inspiration:  Are you looking for inspiration?  Below is a list of some student-produced videos that are guaranteed to grab the attention of your students and keep them engaged.  Here is a compilation of some of my personal favorites:

The Cuplate


The Flam Kick

Teacher Explains Importance of 3D Printing Education in Classroom


Edsall, T. B. (n.d.). We Are Leaving ‘Lost Einsteins’ Behind. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/21/opinion/young-adults-spatial-reasoning.html

Kell, H. J., & Lubinski, D. (2013). Spatial Ability: A Neglected Talent in Educational and Occupational Settings. Roeper Review, 35(4), 219–230. https://doi.org/10.1080/02783193.2013.829896

Lakin, J. M., & Wai, J. (2020). Spatially gifted, academically inconvenienced: Spatially talented students experience less academic engagement and more behavioural issues than other talented students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(4), 1015–1038. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12343

Park, G., & Lubinski, D. (2010, November 2). Recognizing Spatial Intelligence. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/recognizing-spatial-intel/

Trust, T., & Maloy, R. W. (2017). Why 3D Print? The 21 st -Century Skills Students Develop While Engaging in 3D Printing Projects. Computers in the Schools, 34(4), 253–266. https://doi.org/10.1080/07380569.2017.1384684