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3D Animation Takes Off in Education

Mary Ann Skweres uncovers the rapid rise of 3D animation as a valuable teaching tool in education.

3D animation aids visual learning at the VisTE project conducted at North Carolina State University. Here a students work explains how radiation affects a cell. All VistTe images courtesy of Dr. Julie Petlick.

Most people think of 3D animation as the visuals that make blockbuster movies and videogames possible, but the applications for this computer-dependent art form go well beyond entertainment venues. 3D models and environments are being used for education and training in a staggering amount of areas architecture, medical training, aerospace, engineering, product marketing, historical recreations, archeology, biotechnology, vehicle operation and real estate to name a few. Universities, corporations, government organizations such as NASA, even high schools and some middle schools have programs that use 3D visualization as a teaching tool.

Widespread use of computers in education has only developed over the last 25 years. Computers started with one-dimensional command lines. In the last 15 years or so 2D conventions such as Web pages and graphical user interfaces like windows and menus have been the norm. In the last decade the use of 3D technology has advanced along with improvements in computing and processing power. Plus we now have a generation of students that have grown up with the technology. They are not intimidated at all by the graphics.

Artist and curator Mark Meadows concludes that 3D, photorealism and motion can approximate reality and make learning possible when the real thing is not available to be studied.

Students, especially high school students are enamored by animation technology. Whether they got there through their love of visual effects from film or computer games, there's a strong desire by students to learn or play on this technology. Now we're giving a firm academic reason to explore it, shares Michael Edmonds, senior manager of education and government business for Discreet. Different from programs in classical high schools that teach animation as a technology prep course through fine arts or vocational programs, a new program has been developed for comprehensive high schools.

Comprehensive education courses focus on math, science, language arts and pre-college curriculum. In these courses the technology is used to support their objectives. The program curriculum consists of project-based immersion using visual communication to explore a particular science topic. Five projects that are best demonstrated using 3D animation are selected from high school science or technology curriculums. Using visual communication to explore these science areas, students animate a solution to explain the science or technology. Projects include an archaeological reconstruction of the Parthenon, a piece on the digestive system, one on weather systems and tornadoes, another on forensics and facial reconstruction and on planetary mechanics. Taken together, the five projects constitute a semester-long course as well as the equivalent of a fundamental animation course. Edmonds credits Pia Maffei of Applied IDEAS Inc. with authoring the program.

The federal government is investing in new curricular devises to promote the areas of science, technology and design in schools. Grants help universities such as North Carolina State, Harvard and other schools do cognitive research. Several schools are involved in research on the implementation of visualization in the classroom, both to help make teaching more effective as well as preparing future teachers on how to teach students to visualize. They are looking at cognition how people absorb data. 3D works by making it more real and making it real is key. Author of Pause an Effect, The Art of Interactive Narrative, artist/curator Mark Meadows explains, The best learning would occur hands on with the physical subject matter. It you're studying a rock, the best way to comprehend a rock is to hold it in your hand, look at it, smell it, weigh it physical interaction. With 3D animation where you're using 3D, photorealism and motion, we can approach reality far closer than many other media. In this medium, learning is going to be facilitated.

A sample of the visualization work coming from Discreets education and government business program. 2004 © Discreet, a Division of Autodesk Inc.

Several years ago, senior researcher and professor, Dr. Aaron Clark and Eric Wiebe of North Carolina State University (NCSU) began a curriculum in scientific visualization that was adopted and approved statewide. Scientific visualization is visualizing tabular data and how to properly chart and graph that data. It's the 2D and 3D visualization of illustration and animation of technical and scientific concepts. Anytime a technical subject needs to be communicated to someone less technical whether that's a salesperson to a client, an expert witness to a jury or a scientist to an investor visual communication provides a tremendous benefit. A study at Harvard and Oxford Universities showed that it is possible to learn by seeing without cognitive thought. So as help and explanation for technical subjects, 3D visualization has been an amazing learning tool.

Drs. Aaron Clark (left) and Julie Petlick visit one of VisTes pilot-sites.

VisTE Visualization in Technology Education is a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored project to develop activities that link science and technology though the creation of visualizations. Teachers can use these activities in the classroom not only to enhance their understanding of science and technology, but also at the same time help students develop good visual skills. A two-year high school curriculum called Scientific and Technical Visualization, based on the VisTE materials is more in depth and provides students a strong enough background that upon completion they can seek a career in this area. There are lots of reasons for using 3D graphics in teaching. The biggest plus is that students are attracted to the graphics more than words on the page. They use the same technology as a learning tool that they use as entertainment in their games and films. Dr. Clark adds, We also know, that a lot of people are visual learners. Visual learners learn best by working with and seeing. The overall goal of the program is to teach students how to communicate any kind of information using 3D graphics.

These new tools are intended to teach students how to communicate more accurately and effectively. Students are given design briefs and must make decisions on how to solve problems and the best way to communicate the topic using different types of graphics. It's a hands-on approach that is much more active than rote learning of the material. Instead of just focusing on the learning the terms, students focus on how to present it. In order to be able to present material effectively, students need to have mastered the material. They learn implicitly because they are not just memorizing material, they are using it practically, according to Dr. Julie Petlick. Any time that you can apply your learning, that's a much deeper level of learning than just rehearsing it and regurgitating it. An associate professor at NCSU, Petlick has a psychology and graphics background and helped develop the VisTE program with Dr. Clark.

Animation is used extensively both in landscape architecture and interior work. ACADIA advanced computer applications in design and architecture is a consortium dealing with, as the name implies, the use of 3D in design and architecture. Architects at the University of Pennsylvania used particle systems to design a train station. The train was animated as it came into the station. Setting a particle emitter on top of the train and watching the vault of the particles as it came into the station supplied data for designing the roof structure of the station. Crowd simulators are used to analyze flow ingress and egress from buildings.

In these screen captures, VisTe students show their 3D work. Left is the components of the knee and how one part articulates with the other prior to designing a prosthetic device. On the right is an image from an animation of a syringe pump.

Dr. Mark Snoswell created the Ultimate Human 3D model set and Absolute Character Tools (ACT), a toolset for animating the human musculo-skeleton. Used as a plug-in for Discreet 3ds max, the muscle and skin simulation software gives artists the tools to create realistic animation with biomechanically correct muscle, tendon and joint motion. The animations are used for surgical simulation, patient rehabilitation, sports training, informed patient consent, biomechanics and orthopedics as well as computer-generated film and game characters. Another company, Anatomical Travelogue, has created computer animations of human anatomy. Their work an animation to educate men about the life-saving procedure, colonoscopy was featured on the Today show There is also a new field emerging among physicians in non-traditional medicine to use 3D animation to teach patients to visualize and use the power of the mind for healing purposes. The techniques have been used with cancer victims, for fighting infections and healing bones.

At MIT the TEALS/Studio physics project deals with electro-magnetic fields. This theoretical area is extremely difficult to communicate to a student. Using 3D they can visualize these normally invisible magnetic fields, improving student comprehension. It's also tied into the technical data. One of the big differences between scientific and technical visualization versus standard animation for visual effects and games is that there has to be a link to a technical reality. For example, in a courtroom when animation is used as a part of expert testimony or evidence, the technical datathe forensics evidence collected at the crime scene and the expert witness's testimony must link directly to the animation.

Michael Edmonds of Discreet (left) and Pia Maffei of Applied IDEAS Inc. have developed a comprehensive high school program that features project-based immersion using visual communication to explore a particular science topic.

Years ago, the Athena project at the University of Maryland researched better ways to teach classic physics subject matter by using graphics and animation. More recently, a visualization consortium called Molecvue uses computer graphics to teach chemistry. About 15 smaller liberal arts universities in the northeast are in this consortium, started by Dr. John Ranck at Elizabethtown College. Purdue University, a top author in engineering graphics, uses animation extensively in engineering. If you think about mechanical engineering with linkages, chains and robotics, high-end animation techniques are perfectly suited for visualizations. At St. Bonaventure University, Dr. Dalton R. Hunkins has been very successful at teaching calculus to liberal arts majors using 3D animation. It's far more efficient than the standard theoretical approach to teaching calculus because students can see visual feedback on the math underpinnings instantly. NASA uses 3D animation to train space shuttle astronauts, for public education as well as to visualize prototypes of the new X43A engine systems.

The use of 3D interfaces can improve the educational experience by allowing people to gain access to greater amounts of information, quicker and in a more intuitive way. Meadows explains, Think of it this way: if I go into the library to look for a book, rather than look through the card catalog for the book title, I might actually go and ask the librarian where the book might be located. That kind of interaction traditionally involves a human, so the metaphoric equivalent to this kind of interface amounts to asking a program that appears to be a person for the same information. We ask a program (called Google) where something that we're looking for is, but this is like looking through a card catalog. For the past five years I've been working on changing that interface.

This is a very new area. It's only become cost-effective for public schools in the last six to eight years to have graphics and animation software in the classroom. Now that the technology is available it's a case of figuring out how to use this graphic education area to link science and technology together. Few people are studying it. Scientific visualization has been used for years, but mostly in programming and logarithms. Dr. Clark explains, This is application orientated. You can actually take this into grades lower than college or grad school. We are actually polishing these materials with eighth graders and a few seventh graders. Dr. Petlick adds, We do know that there is a need for [this type of education]. There is some research from the early `90s that indicated that students who come to college, especially if they're going to major in engineering, need sufficient visualization skills. That's a key part of why educators are trying to improve visualization skills by teaching it in the high schools and middle schools. To provide students with a good fundamental background to communicate symbolically, it's important to begin this training as early as possible. Dr. Clark concludes, It's too early in these initiatives to see where the outcome will be, but the way the world is going with the use of graphics in general, we're going to need a technically literate society.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.