3D Printing Courses on a Massive Scale

University of Illinois business school lands a makerspace, thanks to Ultimaker.

First introduced in 2008, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have already changed the educational landscape. Offered to thousands of students, often for free, MOOCs can also provide unprecedented access to classes from prestigious universities such as MIT and Harvard on topics as varied as circuit analysis and electronic biosensors. It should come as no surprise then that 3D printing would make its way into the growing MOOC universe, as the University of Illinois (U of I), Dutch desktop 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker and Coursera have partnered to offer online courses dedicated to the technology.  The U of I classes will become a part of Coursera’s existing massive open online course platform, currently populated by a number of recognized universities and colleges from around the world.

MOOCs allow students anywhere in the world with Internet access to virtually attend classes from established universities, complete with course materials and video lectures, with some even providing certification upon completion. Although Coursera, a for-profit MOOC platform, offers real engineering courses, such as “Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering Laboratory” from Rice University, the new 3D printing courses from U of I and Ultimaker are geared more toward those with little or no technology experience.

Open to users worldwide, the series will be made up of four courses and a single hands-on capstone that cover the following topics, according to a recent press release from Ultimaker:

  • “An Overview of 3D Printing and Its Revolutionary Potential”
  • “An Examination of 3D Printing’s Applications Across a Variety of Industries”
  • “An In-Depth Exploration of 3D Design Software”
  • “An Investigation of How 3D Printers Are Made and How They Operate” 
Ultimaker 3D printers provided to Illinois MakerLab for the new partnership. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

Ultimaker 3D printers provided to Illinois MakerLab for the new partnership. (Image courtesy of Ultimaker.)

Although Ultimaker will work with U of I to produce the content for the Coursera series, Ultimaker has also provided the Illinois MakerLab, located at the university, with 17 new Ultimaker 3D printers. With these printers in tow, the makerspace will be hosting “Free Print Wednesdays,” sponsored by the fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer manufacturer. As interesting as the introduction of 3D printing to the world of MOOC education is, what may be more significant is the role that the Illinois MakerLab plays at the university.

One of the most obvious advantages of 3D printing to the “mainstreaming” of manufacturing may be the ability to construct complex geometries not possible with any other technology. As a result, it’s championed for its amazing engineering potential to produce unique components capable of unique properties. But U of I has taken to the technology for its ability to democratize manufacturing and entrepreneurship. For that reason, the Illinois MakerLab is located not in the school’s engineering department, but in the College of Business, where the makerspace bills itself as “the world’s first Business School 3D Printing Lab.”

By placing the prototyping, short-run manufacturing and marketing abilities into the hands of the local U of I community through the lab’s low-cost FDM printers and services, students, faculty and residents of the surrounding Champaign-Urbana area can realize their business ideas as physical objects. This could be a simple proof-of-concept for an invention, or it could be a run of keychains with which to promote one’s shop in town. In addition to the Illinois MakerLab’s own 3D scanning and printing offerings, the makerspace hosts two of the business school’s courses, where students learn to utilize maker technologies such as 3D printing, simple CAD software and Arduino programming to design, produce and pitch their own products.

Now that U of I is bringing this approach to the globe through the Coursera MOOC, it’s reasonable to expect that most learners will be able to understand how 3D printing technology can enable anyone to go from concept to prototype and possibly even production with only a $2,500 Ultimaker 3D printer or a local makerspace such as the Illinois MakerLab.