3D printing is revolutionizing our world, but not enough students have access to this game-changing technology

Karina Popovich poses with 3D printers. (Courtesy of Karina Popovich)

Karina Popovich poses with 3D printers. (Courtesy of Karina Popovich)

My app, Proto, helps connect educators, students and facilities with underutilized 3D printers so more people can learn how to use them.

When I first used a 3D printer as a freshman in high school, I was mesmerized by its power to create something out of nothing. It is an intuitive yet complex idea to stack thin layers of plastic on top of each other to build an object with volume. And I’m not the only one captivated by the potential of this technology. From making medical equipment to car parts and dresses, 3D printers are transforming the fields of health care, defense, manufacturing, construction and fashion. Research predicts that the 3D printing market will grow to $34.8 billion by 2024

The future of 3D printing is bright, but not enough students have access to this game-changing technology. From personal experience, I know that the costs of buying and maintaining 3D printers are too high for many schools. There are very few studies showing the positive impact of 3D printing on students’ education and not enough statistics measuring the number of students in the U.S. who don’t have access to 3D printers. Although understanding 3D printing is becoming one of the most valuable skills in the modern labor market, the U.S. government has not announced plans for a country-wide initiative to introduce students to 3D printing. 

Karina coaching her robotics team. (Courtesy of Karina Popovich)

Karina coaching her robotics team. (Courtesy of Karina Popovich)

As a high school student, I saw the transformative power of 3D printing in the classroom when I volunteered as an after-school robotics teacher at a public elementary school in Brooklyn, New York. While teaching my students to build a bionic arm, I used my high school’s 3D printer to make the necessary parts. My students were amazed that a printer had created these unique pieces. They asked about the striations (ridges) that are a result of the layering and were delighted when they realized how simple the process is. They couldn’t stop asking me about it. 

Eager to help my students learn more about 3D printing, I began to research what options were available. Their school couldn’t afford to purchase a 3D printer and didn’t have the capacity to maintain one (3D printers cost on average between $750 and $2,500, require ongoing maintenance and use plastic spools priced at approximately $50 each). Even though this is the case for many schools, I couldn’t find any alternative options. I was heartbroken to see that nothing was available for schools that can’t afford the expensive pricing of an external facility or afford the costs associated with owning a 3D printer. 

Desperate to solve this problem, I knew there must be a way that facilities and people with 3D printers could share their resources with those that don’t have them. I decided to create an app where students or teachers can pick from an assortment of 3D printable files (Standard Triangle Language, more commonly known as STL files), decide from a list of simple modifications (size, color, etc.), choose a local facility with an underutilized 3D printer and select a time to pick up the finished print. 

To bring my app to life, I called up my friend Sanam, who is a software engineer. She worked on the programming side while I focused on the user interface, market research and other business details. Together, we worked for over eight months. Because the app connects people on two opposite ends of the engineering spectrum, we had to understand both 3D printer experts and novices. We needed to create an experience that is simple for non-engineers while also efficient and appropriately complex for engineers. We decided to create an app for non-engineers that offers a library of 3D files and simple customization options to make 3D printing as easy as possible. And we created a website for our engineers to easily receive, download and print files from their computer. 

3D printers showed me that the world of engineering can be simple, beautiful and above all, doable. I want every student to be able to experience that.
— Karina Popovich

After all our hard work, the app launched this week. We named it Proto, which is short for prototyping, the term makers use to create, reiterate on their creations and learn during the process. Our first beta tester is the elementary school where I worked as a volunteer. The teachers will be using the app as part of their after-school programs and a few individuals and facilities in my network of makers have agreed to offer their 3D printing services.

With help from Proto, I hope 3D printing will one day be a staple in classrooms across the U.S. I want students to see 3D printing as a norm, not a luxury. 3D printers showed me that the world of engineering can be simple, beautiful and above all, doable. I want every student to be able to experience that. 

Through Assembly, Malala Fund is helping girls around the world share their stories. Subscribe to receive our newsletter and learn about the next generation of leaders.


about the author

Karina Popovich is an 18-year-old first-generation tech entrepreneur, speaker and writer focused on promoting STEM education. She is the founder of Proto, which makes 3D printing accessible to all, and Alpha, which empowers women in STEM and leadership through fashion.