How a 3D Printer Upgrade Revolutionized the Student Experience in Starbase’s Rocketry Program

With students, it’s all about exposure, experience, and igniting a little passion.  When students can hold a project they’ve designed and 3D printed in their hands, it’s easier for them to connect the dots between math on paper and math in action. STARBASE’S mission is to show students the real-world applications of math, science, and engineering. We’re a Department of Defense education initiative, and there are 85 STARBASE sites nationwide. STARBASE’s after-school program is mainly taught to fifth graders, but some sites, like STARBASE Louisiana, also offer middle and high school programs. 

Overall, the goal is to inspire fifth graders and show them that STEM is cool stuff and not something to be afraid of when you get to middle school. We have a 25-hour curriculum teaching physics, chemistry, math, and, importantly, 3D design for students. For the fifth graders, it’s just about excitement and connecting with the process. But when it comes to middle and high school, the students are working on semester- or year-long projects, so they get to find out more about engineering design. They are at a computer using CAD software almost all of their five days at the program. We do many things, from drones to robotics, to windmills, but in high school, we do rocketry. 

Contact us today to learn how you can take your classroom experience to the next level with 3D printing for students.

It’s Just Rocket Science

We compete in The American Rocketry Challenge, the students have to design and construct their own rockets. Then they have to put a raw egg inside it, launch it to a specific altitude, deploy a parachute, and return it to Earth in 42-45 seconds. Any foot or second higher or lower is a penalty. Zero is a perfect score. And in a vacuum, this would be easier, but the students have to consider many factors. How does the weather affect your rocket? How does the wind, the temperature, and humidity? How can you change the design elements of your rocket to make it lighter and stronger? They get down to the minute details. 

If the students are in the rocketry program, they’ve built up to it. They’ve had to learn about aerodynamics, about Newton’s laws. They’ve flown drones and programmed them, so they’ve learned about lift and wind currents and different variables that can affect flight. They’ve done lots of projects that have led up to rocketry. I tell them we’re teaching an engineering class. Rocketry just happens to be the project we’re working on because it’s all designed, no matter what.

3D Printers For Students Create Excitement

The 3D printer is crucial because it gives the kids a reason to want to learn CAD software and to want to learn the math and science behind why it works. They want to see that final product. I can make them learn the math, but when they see it in action, there’s a lightbulb moment. With a 3D printer, the students will design all the parts of the rocket and then create a template where they can just add in variables and automatically generate the 3D printer files they need. They don’t have to design it from scratch every single time. 

Using the 3D printer lowers the design time of repetitive tasks and generates more engagement with the students. Since we have all these capabilities with 3D design software, we encourage them to make a rocket design and test it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll print another one. We make them design everything, and then they launch it and find out what happens. They get some real-world successes and failures, and if they fail, they can fail well and understand why it didn’t work, and move forward to the next iteration. The 3D printer teaches them not to be afraid – we’ll make another one if it breaks. 

The Right Tool For The Job

For a small class of younger students, 3D printers like MakerBots are appropriate for most of the projects they are creating. But as you get into middle and high school, these printers are not necessarily up to the task of what they’re designing. At the STARBASE program, our middle and high schoolers do a great deal more complicated 3D design work, and that’s why we focus on keeping better printers around. 

When we first set up this STARBASE in ‘99, we purchased a Stratasys Dimension 768, which we wore out, but still works. Now, the program has a Uprint, and a brand new F170, which has totally changed the game. With a larger build area, we can get more done at one time. It can also handle a bunch of different materials, so we are working with PLA, ABS, and even carbon fiber. The ABS is perfect for rocketry projects because it can handle the heat of the motors and equipment. The only downside is the longer warm-up time. But, once running, the F170 makes beautiful 3D prints. Having a current and dependable machine is crucial for the STARBASE rocketry program. We could have wasted so much time and money trying to use an inexpensive machine, instead, we invested in a durable product. The time savings have paid for having the right device. Find the right printer for your classroom.

All About Student Outcomes 

The STARBASE program makes a difference! While we can’t track the metrics of our younger students because of confidentiality, and with good reason, we do know that about 80% of our high school students who attend the program choose careers in STEM. We give out a scholarship every year, and part of the application for high school seniors is an essay. It’s amazing how many of them give credit to STARBASE for influencing their college choices. 

These students are learning to apply engineering concepts out of aerospace, too. We judge the local Science Fair every year. A few years ago, a sixth-grade student designed a rudimentary prosthetic hand for a friend of hers and 3D printed it. When we asked where she had gotten the idea, she said, “Because I learned how to do this stuff at STARBASE.” She was exposed to CAD software and 3D printing for students. She took it upon herself to go way above and beyond. Needless to say, she won her division at the science fair.

The students of STARBASE today are the scientists and engineers of the future. Trying to pick out the perfect 3D printers for students in your classroom? We’re here to help.

By Richard Scott, Deputy Director, Starbase Louisiana, Barksdale Air Force Base


RICHARD SCOTT BIO – My name is Richard Scott, and I’ve done a lot of science. I’ve worked for NASA building cosmic ray detectors. I did mechanical and electrical engineering for many years. I noticed a lack of training in the young people entering the workforce so I became a science and math teacher. Being the Deputy Director of STARBASE is a perfect confluence of these career paths, as now I get to help mold the generation that will lead us into the future.