Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Earth in Our Hands: Using a 3D Printer to Build Topographical Maps for Earth Science Lessons

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Earth in Our Hands: Using a 3D Printer to Build Topographical Maps for Earth Science Lessons

Article excerpt

In 1871 Ferdinand Hayden led a surveying expedition into the region surrounding the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. His charge was to confirm rumors of spectacular geological displays reportedly witnessed in the territory. The expedition's efforts were rewarded. Within the year Hayden would present to the U.S. Congress a report documenting the geologic features of Northwest Wyoming. Hayden hoped to convince Congress that the land was worthy of becoming the first-ever national park. He didn't come prepared only with stories; included in his report were a series of photographs and paintings by William Jackson and Thomas Moran. Their artwork depicted explosive geysers, vibrant hot springs, and prairies teeming with strange and beautiful wildlife.

The images proved persuasive. Less than a year after the expedition returned, Congress set aside 3,600 square miles to preserve Yellowstone National Park and hung Moran's painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone prominently in the Senate lobby.

Our world's greatest natural wonders can be difficult to view in person and nearly impossible for people with visual impairments. Traveling is expensive; the journeys are typically long and off the beaten path; and hikes offering the most substantial photographic rewards require greater-than-normal physical exertion. You need three things not all students have: working eyesight, working muscles, and a solid paycheck.

The NGSS require students to be able to explain the causes of Earth's changing geology and to predict future changes as well. Thanks to 3D printing technology, national parks, natural landmarks, unusual ground formations, and the most inaccessible portions of our planet can now be constructed in miniature scale and delivered directly into our students' hands.

Recently I was looking for ways to introduce Earth science topics into my 10th-grade biology class. The NGSS, recently adopted in our state, require more Earth science knowledge than previous standards did, and the topic corresponds neatly as a helpful supplement to our evolution and ecology units. At the same time, our district's technology department offered the use of a 3D printer to any teacher who was interested. Thinking the technology sounded fun, I accepted their offer and spent the summer perusing computer-aided design (CAD) software and video clips of tutorials. One tutorial from the tech department caught my attention: how to construct topographical maps (Figure 1).

Although the printer kit our classroom received typically costs $600, other printers are available for as little as $130. Most of the software used in our classroom is open source, and the rest have free trials available for educators. To build the topographical maps, I start by using one website ( to collect the terrain data and a pair of software programs (Blender and Fusion360) to convert the data into printable shapes and slices (see "On the web"). I edit the image to the scale and size I prefer, and then send it to the printer where it will spend the next 10-20 hours constructing a miniature map. The video provides more specific instructions, and is the same video I used to teach myself the steps (see "On the web").

The following activities give students opportunities to visit Earth's geologic landmarks through kinesthetic modeling. 3D-printed topographical maps function as a supplement to, or replacement of, two-dimensional drawings, computerized maps, or satellite images. Using kinesthetic activities to introduce students to these formations allow students to interact with our world in ways that would be impossible using 2-D maps or drawings, or even if they were on location for their research (Williams, Oulton, and Taylor2017). Stretches of land 60 km wide and 4,000 m high become small enough for students to hold in their hands while still retaining all the details necessary for studying.

These 3D-printed topographical maps were presented to classes of 25-30 students as part of our end-of-year Earth science unit. …

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