Why teach (why learn) 3d modeling?

This week the Digital Learning team graciously invited me to speak at the last Tech Tuesday of the Fall 2016 schedule. For this hour long conversation, I opted to discuss various 3D modeling softwares covering modeling, photogrammetry, and hosting platforms (see previous post).  With Play-Doh in hand, I set out that morning still unsure of what I hoped to achieve in that hour.  I had a presentation that gave a birds-eye view of what was possible, how much it would cost, what the learning curve looked like, and how it could be used in higher education via the classroom or personal research.  Meanwhile, my brain was spinning from a wonderful twitter storm of 3D modeling pedagogy that began with this tweet by John Stewart:

The conversation that followed the presentation was fantastic.  It quickly moved to 3D printing, an avenue I mentioned only once at the start of the presentation.  Like John Stewart, many faculty wanted to know how they could incorporate this kind of work into their classrooms, what the value or affordances were, and wether or not they could feasibly do so in just a semester.  Perhaps my favorite part of this discussion was Patrick Williams, professor in neuroscience here at Muhlenberg College, giving his personal experience with 3D printing some voice saying he was a long-time skeptic of printing until he purchased his own and began using it for his research. His original skepticism or concern is one I have heard often, both at Muhlenberg College and the Wired! Lab at Duke University.  I have found that the concerns stem from 2 different places:  the newness of developing technologies and the affordances of the technologies.

In Inventing the MediumJanet Murray writes, “we are dealing with an immature medium, which is more diffuse and has much cruder building blocks at its disposal than a mature medium like print.”  While 3D modeling softwares have been around for a few decades now, they developed in particular areas outside of education: 3D animation, architecture/spatial design, and engineering.  What I appreciate about Murray’s statement is the recognition that this technology is new and using it means making up a lot as you go along.  The building blocks for 3D modeling in education do not go back decades.  They are not all tried and true.  Using this technology in the classroom for a new assignment or research method means developing new pedagogy, curriculum, training, expectations, analysis, and thinking.  The tested 3D scholarship frequently mimics the real world applications of the softwares using them for exactly the way they were designed to be used.  Think AutoCad.  It is easy to see how 3D modeling could be used in a design or construction course.  The building blocks are there. But what about physics? Religion Studies? Media and Communications? Just because the technology has not been used does not mean it could not or does not lend value to a particular field of study.  As long as a project is well conceived and provides affordances that another medium (particularly video, text, etc…) does not offer.

It is difficult to imagine what one can do with new, and often times unstable, software.  This frequently causes anxiety with faculty and students.   When asked what to do in the face of potential failure my answer is always “that’s okay.”  While some may perceive this as crass or rude, it is not ill intended.  Rather, my personal belief is that these “failures” are never a waste of time.  Something was learned along the way.  Maybe the project did not end up exactly the way it was imagined.  Why? What happened along the way? What was created? How could the process be changed?  Whenever these technologies find their way into a course, be that in one assignment or as the foundation of a course, things are bound to change (see Caroline Bruzelius’ short essay for more).  While the fear of failure is justified, it should never overwhelm the possibilities of a well-developed idea.

While I do not want to make this post go on any longer, I do want to take a moment to explain a bit more about what I mean when I say “well-developed” or “provides affordances.”  Technologies are not used for technologies sake.  They are used when they can benefit research/scholarship.  Again I turn to Caroling Bruzelius and her TEDxDuke talk about using 3D modeling in her course:

Her discussion of frozen plans and the need for a 3D model to represent the many architectural plans, is a great example of the affordance of the technology in this particular case.  “In this particular case” is also a key phrase.  Not every project should be duplicated.  Reconstructing a grocery store that exists today and is a carbon copy of many others in the chain of stores is probably not a priority.  The affordances of the 3D modeling, being able to explore the inside, understand the architecture, visualize the changes, etc…could be gained by a visit to that store or another of its kind, modern photography, or video footage.  This is far different than reconstructing a statue or building that no longer exists.  In the case of a lost building the affordances become far more relevant.  The 3D model can take the written accounts, sketches, plans, whatever evidence is left of this building and create a simulation backed by archival research.  It completely changes the way an audience would understand and interact with the object.  This is just one example of how each project is unique and has to be developed and thought through carefully.

While there is so much more that can be discussed in regards to 3D modeling and the classroom (or 3D printing or virtual reality), I will end this particular ramble and invite any conversation be it interest in incorporating 3D modeling into their research or classroom pedagogy or just general curiosity, feel free to reach out or add a comment!



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