Students create their own 3D content

Educators say the best part of the 3D program is that students become independent learners, invested in their own skill sets.

Some tech-savvy school districts are helping students take knowledge and creativity into their own hands by giving them the chance to create their own 3D content.

And many educators say that 3D is a logical path for today’s students, who are accustomed to customizing their technology tools for their own needs.

“With 90 percent of most learners being visual in nature, I definitely see 3D as the next step in curriculum,” said Jeff Epps, information technology director for Richmond County School District in Rockingham, N.C. “The ability to take a concept and visually display it with interactivity is a powerful teaching tool. Also, to provide students who possess the skill sets to produce concepts such as 3D simulations represents a quantum leap for K-12 education.”

Epps, who directs the Globally Ready Engineering and Technology (GREAT) 3D Academy and Classroom, said the program began when the county’s partner, the BRAC Regional Task Force at Fort Bragg, donated portable 3D theaters to various school systems in the county, with the initial goal of providing teachers with 3D content that could be used to enhance classroom instruction.

However, Epps decided to move in a different direction by having students create the content.

The 40 students in the program, ranging from grades 5-12, attend the GREAT 3D Academy as a class during the day, while others attend it as an after-school enrichment program.

The students learn to use AutoDesk’s 3ds Max software and Unity’s game design engine to create 3D simulations that are viewable on both passive (polarized) and stereo (presenting two offset images separately to the left and right eye of the viewer) 3D systems. Using a combination of internet-based tutorials, instructor-created tutorials, and student-created tutorials, students are introduced to simulation and game design as early as the fifth grade.

In the beginning, students create content specific to their weaknesses in math and science. They also create content that is career-specific. Many students also create content for their teachers for extra credit.

Examples of student work can be seen at the Richmond County Ninth Grade Academy, where students are using 3D design to visualize The Hunger Games book series. As a group project, students visualize the arena and immerse the reader into the story.

Another example is a pilot program, Google SketchUp for Future Ready Engineers, at West Rockingham Elementary school. Fifth grade students learn the fundamentals of 3D design using Google SketchUp and visualize their weaknesses in math and science to better prepare them for end-of-year tests.

At Rohanen Middle School, the 3D Aviation Academy was established for students seeking careers in this field. Students learn the fundamentals of flight and 3D design simulation using AutoDesk’s 3ds Max and Unity. Using the engineering process, students design and model various aircraft.

Many other schools have projects involving 3D classes as well, and already, Epps said, teachers are seeing positive results.

“The 3D class at the Richmond County Transitional School was originally established there to increase attendance, and it has accomplished that goal. One of the students at the school passed the Algebra I end-of-course exam after failing twice before. Ironically, this student excels in 3D architecture. … What we have discovered is that many of the students walking our halls who are labeled ‘underachievers’ are those who excel in GREAT 3D Academy,” Epps said.

And it’s not just Epps’ district that sees 3D design as a way to motivate and engage students.

The Sioux Central Community School District in Sioux Rapids, Iowa, along with several others in the Midwest, is part of a program called Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders (VREP), which was created by Rockwell Collins—a famous space shuttle contractor. The company supports this effort in schools as a means of someday increasing the number of engineers in their industry.

For Dan Strohmyer, technology integration specialist for Sioux Central, the program is perfect for gifted students who are not being challenged in their regular classes.

“For example, [they have an] I.Q. of 130 and are getting a ‘C’ in science. The student is bored. I try to target those students for VREP. I also let students participate in VREP if they have a strong interest in 3D animation or modeling. For example, the industrial arts teacher sees a student that is extremely proficient in CAD design,” he said.

Currently, there are five students taking VREP for credit, and all are taking the class as independent study, which is a semester long and usually lasts about 45 minutes. However, the program is loaded onto the student’s one-to-one laptop, so students can work on their projects independently and whenever they want to.

“I joined mainly because the idea of making games and animation sounded really useful for making video games,” said Ethan Frazier, a 15-year-old freshman at Sioux Central High School and VREP participant.

Frazier, who is considering a career in computers/engineering/drafting and said he would love to work in a collaborative group in creating a video game “never before thought of,” said he initially signed up for the class because his Gifted and Talented program adviser suggested he consider VREP.

According to Daniel L. Frazier, superintendent of Sioux Central Community School District and a 2012 Tech-Savvy-Superintendent Award winner, the course is challenging because there are no teachers on staff trained to teach it.

“This is entirely dependent on the students teaching themselves and each other. And it is this kind of active learning that is highly engaging for students and delivers a high rate of retention,” he said. “This is the type of animation that students are regularly seeing in the movie theaters. For them, this is fascinating to be doing the same thing as Hollywood.”

“I like the class,” said Ethan Frazier, Daniel’s son. “Everyone sits in the library looking at tutorials and trying to work with the program. Every quarter, we submit two projects we have been working on. I’ve turned in a small video game, in the style of a maze, along with a hand that I’ve been working on extensively over the past 3-4 weeks.”

But even such a gifted student as Frazier admits that the open-source program is “pretty hard,” and there are still things to learn.

That’s why the district hired support.

“[Strohmyer] is a full-time teacher whose primary job it is to teach our teachers how to instruct with their technology assets,” said Frazier. “He speaks the language of the teachers.” Strohmyer also assumes the duties of teacher of record for the VREP study class; meaning “he had the time to take kids to some outside training to get them started. With his flexible schedule, he is available to the class throughout the day.”

Strohmeyer, who checks in with students every other day, says the students use whatever program they feel comfortable using, including Blender, Creo, and CryEngine 3. Some programs are free (Blender) and some have been given to the VREP program for educational use.

“When we initially invested into VREP—around $3,500 for the equipment—I took six students to a knowledge workshop where other [college] students taught beginning Blender skills,” said Strohmyer. “They learned enough at the workshop to get started and know where to go if they have questions.”

Strohmyer said he was purposely not taught how to use Blender so students would have to search out the answers to their questions from other students (nationally) or find the answers online.

So far, he’s had students make games, puzzles, simple animations, and some very complex animations. The process of creating animations, he said, can be difficult, but the techniques learned are those used by Pixar and other computer-generated environments. Most gaming companies also use something similar. For example, CryEngine 3 is a platform used to develop many games for Playstation 3 and X-Box 360.

“I encourage the student to create a project that would push their ability level and spark their interest,” he said. “They have gone from making simple animations and models to making a ‘fly-though’ of Iowa State College of Engineering with all of the buildings.”

But not all of the challenges with 3D programs rest on the software’s learning curve. Challenges like funding, content implementation, and assessments are still a factor.

“While the software and hardware are easy to maintain, funding is always a challenge,” said Epps. “We use free teacher and student licenses provided by AutoDesk, and we used the free version of Unity until Unity graciously gave us extended trial pro licenses.”

Richmond County’s Epps also explained that integrating 3D content into the curriculum is an “uphill battle.”

“Because the technology is so new, a formal curriculum has not been established. However, I am working with a team of teachers to establish one,” he said.

And though Strohmyer has noticed increased student engagement, the VREP program is only four months old for Sioux Central, meaning no formal assessment can be given.

“I’m sure just letting them flex their creative muscles has helped them some, but I need to have a conversation with the staff about what difference they see with the VREP students,” he said.

But whether or not there are currently any measurable gains or concrete implementation plans, one thing these school leaders are quick to recognize is the invaluable science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills their students are learning.

“We are about creating jobs and preparing students for jobs that do not exist,” said Epps. “3D simulation is a skill set that can be applied to many industries. Usually when schools reach out to businesses the question is ‘What can you do for us?’ As our numbers continue to grow, we are reaching out to local and regional companies in hopes of answering the question, ‘What can we do for you?’”

Frazier said he supported his district’s VREP program for three reasons: “First, it is what we anticipate is the future of drafting and design. Second, it is exciting for the kids, and we thought it would engage some specific learners who are interested in computers, engineering, or mechanics. Third, we saw this as a way to bolster our STEM initiative and attract students to the STEM career pathways.”

Strohmyer echoed Frazier’s beliefs, saying that though he’d like students to first get some formal instruction and a degree under their belt, the skills and credentials will land them “at least an interview for a great job.”

But perhaps the biggest plus of these programs is not the opportunity for an interview, but that students can become creators of their own content, becoming invested—and interested—in their own learning.

“Our students are in this class as independent learners,” said Frazier, “so they are developing independence, initiative, and self-discipline in their school work. Moreover, each student creates a unique project, so there is a great deal of pride of ownership for each one.”

Epps said he welcomes any school district to join his efforts, because Richmond County is willing to share their training resources and expertise.

Epps will also conduct “The Summer of Kaintomia 2012” in June, which is a week-long summer camp that introduces students to 3D game design fundamentals using Unity. Any district interested in joining via video conference should contact Epps at

For more information on the VREP program, click here.

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