Though the ocean makes up 71% of our planet, the majority of people on earth can't access what lies beneath its surface. This makes studying the marine environment both complicated and abstract.
Many K-12 curriculums lack in depth information about our oceans, keeping students naive to the impacts they can have on marine environments. Even students who pursue an undergraduate degree in marine biology or similar field are typically limited to studying the ocean from textbooks, lectures, and few laboratory experiments. The travel, equipment, and certifications required to conduct research and educational programs in marine environments keep us removed from the interconnectivity of land and ocean processes.
3D printing can improve ocean literacy by recreating marine environments and bringing these ecosystems to life. The technology provides opportunities for educators to incorporate hands on, interactive learning for students located miles away from shore.
Here are some ways 3D printing can improve ocean education...
Hands on Learning
As one might expect, marine organisms, which live underwater, cannot easily be handled. Even with aquarium setups, students are forced to observe the organism from behind a glass. Using 3D printed organism replicates, educators can allow students to handle and explore organisms they see in their textbooks and/or aquariums. Providing tangible replicates gives students a better sense of scale and mobility, which can be misconstrued in a textbook. This is particularly beneficial for kinesthetic, tactile, and active learners, who assimilate knowledge through hands-on experimentation.
In-Depth Anatomical Exploration
Not only are marine organisms difficult to access/ obtain, but the ones that are available for educational purposes are unlikely to be sacrificed for dissection. 3D printing replicates creates opportunities for students to explore the anatomy of marine organisms, without ethical and health concerns associated with scarification. In this case, a few 3D anatomical models can be circulated to numerous classrooms around the world, maximizing the outreach potential, without harming living organisms. This technique has shown success in the medical field, where cadavers and specimens are also limited (e.g. McMenamin et al., 2014)
Scalability and Replication
There are millions of viruses, bacteria, and phytoplankton in every milliliter of seawater! Their tiny, microscopic size makes it difficult to comprehend just how prevalent they are. 3D printing large-scale replicas can help students understand more about these easily-forgotten members of the marine environment. Though they're small, they account for billions of tons of carbon on earth, and are therefore important for marine biology students to understand. Educators don't need to replicate all of the viruses, bacteria, and phytoplankton found in seawater, but the ease of sending and mass-producing 3D printed items makes it possible, should they feel inclined...
Interdisciplinary Problem Solvers
3D printing can increase ocean education around the world, while simultaneously exposing students to 3D technology. By introducing students to 3D technology, they can design and print organisms, ecosystems, as well as marine conservation solutions. 3D printing encourages students to get creative and can inspire them to develop new strategies for marine restoration or conservation. Educators can pose problems for students to solve using printable 3D models. Students can then assess their tangible models to develop practical solutions. Perhaps this interdisciplinary learning can even lead to a new generation of interdisciplinary marine problem-solvers.