Mecropolis project teaches 3-D modeling to K–12 students

In the year 3120, humanity has created and inhabited another planet light years away from the Earth’s solar system. The air on the dark and mysterious planet of Mecropolis is breathable and has cleaner air than on Earth. Large cliffs define the boundaries between various factions that govern the land, and after hundreds of years of wars and uprisings Mecropolians have finally settled and are experiencing prosperity and technological development.

But there is more that can be added to this fictional universe …

“Let’s put a tank on it,” exclaimed one of the more war-minded students in Nathaniel Peters’ after-school 3-D modeling class at the Centre Learning Community (CLC) Charter School — an independently operated public middle school serving students in grades five through eight. The core of CLC’s curriculum is project-based learning with an emphasis on technology. CLC teachers design "real world" projects that integrate a variety of knowledge and skills in science, social studies, math, technology, writing and problem solving.

As part of his senior capstone design project in Penn State’s School of Visual Arts’ (SoVA) Interdisciplinary Digital Studio program, Peters used world-building techniques — a term used to describe the design and construction of a fictional world (and the existence of every made-up concept within it) — to facilitate the creative learning experience for students at CLC.

According to Peters, world building is an exercise in which the builder designs elements that exist only within the world being built, much like the splendor of Middle Earth in the “The Lord of the Rings” series or the futuristic places detailed in “Star Wars” movies.

World building is something Peters knows a lot about. As a young boy, he grew up reading the picture book series "Dinotopia" — a fantastical world-building concept, created by artist James Gurney, about an island where humans and sentient dinosaurs live together, interdependently.

Peters also attended CLC and fondly remembers a sixth-grade assignment in which he first dabbled in the concept of world building to create his own fictional country. “We had to draw maps, make flags and develop the geography, history, culture and economics of our country,” he said. “I found myself looking things up that I hadn’t necessarily been interested in before.”

In addition to math, economics, history and geography, Peters’ sixth-grade assignment also encompassed technical literacy, storytelling and creativity. He remembers creating a tourism video to present his country to the class and now looks back on it as being one of the major influences in his excitement about artistry, storytelling, making videos and doing graphics. “All of these components were wrapped up into this neat little project, and it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done,” said Peters. “I was motivated to learn.”

As a result, Peters believes kids learn best when they want to learn. “Like my sixth-grade project, the trick is finding ways to fully engage students in the learning process without them even realizing they’re learning,” he said. To accomplish this, Peters encouraged his students to create the 3-D computerized objects that would eventually be added to Mecropolis.

But in addition to creating digital objects, the class was also structured around some of the principles Peters had learned while working as a technical adviser in the Introduction to 3-D Modelling and Animation class taught by Michael Collins, an instructor of new media in SoVA. A lot of what Peters used in his senior project and teaching at CLC was inspired by the organic way Collins would engage students and enable them to think creatively. “He would encourage us to personalize our projects so they were unique and not like anybody else’s,” said Peters of Collins.

Using some of what he learned from Collins, Peters taught the CLC class over the course of three weeks. About 10 students, all boys, got Autodesk Maya 3-D animation software installed onto their computers and Peters provided hands-on examples and instruction in 3-D animation, motion graphics and other applications of 3-D design. Peters recalls the students were fascinated by the project and, therefore, were fast learners. Within days of the initial class, they produced their own 3-D images of futuristic buildings, planes and other transport mechanisms to place onto Mecropolis.

But, there was more to the task than just creating 3-D objects in Maya — the job also involved helping them with critical reasoning skills. “I’d ask them, why would you place a tank in this world and they would have to think a bit harder as to the purpose and intent of that object,” he said. Their conversation about tanks led to a Google search, which led to a discussion about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China. These “tangents,” as Peters referred to them, were a way of doing research on things that were interesting to the students while still giving the teacher a framework with which to grade or gauge progress.

While the students later decided there was no special significance or need for a tank in Mecropolis, Peters points out that their initial obsession with violence really interested him. “With my background in sociology, I couldn’t help but wonder if that curiosity comes from the media they consume or if a fascination with guns, tanks and killer robots is almost inherent in pre-teen boys, including myself at that age.”

Peters says he was “blown away” by some of the 3-D objects his students were making, and their response to his class was a profound “cool!” So cool in fact, CLC is planning to incorporate Peters’ project into a longer, eight-week course in the fall that starts out with a social studies/science project about modern-day space technology and exploration. For this course Peters has been asked to design two corresponding world-building projects, one to help students use technology to better express themselves and one structured around the idea of revolution. “I’m creating a faux revolution in Mecropolis, and we’re going to use that revolt as a vessel to educate kids about what’s going on in places like North Korea, Ukraine, Syria and Egypt,” said Peters.

Peters graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in design and a minor in sociology, and said he wants to explore gaming as an education tool. He’s in the process of producing short, 3-D modeling tutorials, akin to the lessons he taught at CLC, aimed specifically at a K-12 audience. He’s also planning to apply to work at CLC, where he hopes to teach as a specialist or continue within one of the after-school programs. “I love digital design, and I found out I also like teaching,” said Peters. “It’s definitely something I want to pursue, but I want to get experience in the professional field first.”

“I think what Nathaniel is doing is really interesting because he’s taking a lot of the techniques and the way we think about teaching a college class and bringing it into a K-12 context,” said Collins.

Peters thinks that 3-D modeling and world building is a way for kids — or anyone for that matter — to communicate very complex ideas and tell a story. “Something as complex as a video can be done with 3-D modeling and animation just using simple block designs and moving them around; and you don’t need to be a lead animator at Pixar to know how to move blocks around in Maya. And so it just opens up an entirely new channel for expression and communication, and that’s what I really enjoy.”

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Last Updated July 07, 2014