In my second year, at NYU CADA it took a a summer course on Rapid Prototyping for Toys and that's what made everything click for me. It combined the digital 3D modeling and the real-world hands-on of machines and physical models. We spent the semester building a toy on the computer which we then sent to a print lab and had an actual, physical model made. I built the Jet Car from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
For details of how this was done, please check out the write up I did for Popular Mechanics:
Jet Car build walk through