Quakertown Animates Students with 3D

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The 10th through 12th grade students who take Don Mease's 3D Animation classes at Quakertown High School in Quakertown, PA don't necessarily expect to get jobs on the next Shrek, but, said Mease, they "see a definite correlation between what they're doing and what's out there."

In his 36 years at the 1,200-student school, Mease has moved from teaching what was called "industrial arts" back in the '70s to what is now called "technological studies." Along the way, the classes eliminated drafting tables, moved in the computers, and cranked up the "cool" factor.

Now, twice a day every day, a group of between 22 and 24 students tackle 90-minute 3D animation classes. Mease also teaches architectural design and mechanical engineering as well as woodshop. What all of those classes--with the exception of the last one--have in common is the use of Autodesk software on the student machines, including Animation Academy and Design Academy.

Autodesk software was first introduced to the school six or seven years ago to replace the outdated CAD software it had been using, which wasn't industry standard. Quakertown sent Mease to a couple of week-long training programs in the beginning, but to keep up on the annual updates, he said, he's been "self-taught."

How Animation Got Moving at Quakertown
Offered for the last four years, the animation class actually grew out of the design and engineering courses that Mease was teaching. "When Autodesk Design Academy came out, Autodesk's 3ds Max was part of that," said Mease. "I told students finished with work related to Design Academy to look at this program and see what they could do with it.... As kids were finishing, they'd get into that and really take to it. I thought, this is something to explore. We implemented it, and it seems to have taken off quite well."

The first year it was offered, Mease taught three semester-long classes for beginners. He eventually added a second level, which had two classes each day. Since the initial wave of interest, it has dropped back a bit. This semester he has two entry-level and one second-level course.

The animation class, which has no prerequisites, starts off with basic geometry, which gets animated. "They create a simple revolution of a sphere and render that out," said Mease. "Then we make the transition from there to incorporating lighting and materials, different camera views. Then we begin to combine different drawings to bring in things they did prior, a different scene, combining one scene with another. All the time we're doing this, the work is becoming more complex."

Mease said he estimates that about half the class time is spent learning the software and the other half learning how to light, shape, and render objects. He said he also explains concepts such as storyboarding, but, he said, "I feel that's more [the job] of the artsy-type person. The person doing the animation from the computer would look at the storyboards and know where to go from there."

He also occasionally invites guest speakers to talk about additional uses for animation expertise, which include architecture (rending buildings under design), interior design (showing walk-around interiors of buildings), and medical field animation (demonstrating how blood flows through the body).

As a culminating assignment, students use Microsoft Movie Maker to integrate individual renderings with transitions and titles to create short movies.

One project along the way that excites students is to design a "thrill ride." "It all started when I first got my training," said Mease. "Part of what everybody received was full-blown version of [3ds Max]. Since I had it on my laptop and had it on every station here at school, I didn't need the program." So he offered it as a prize for the best design a student could concoct. Competing wasn't a requirement of the assignment, but, spurred on by the prize, the students showed a lot of enthusiasm for the contest. The technology department at his school acted as the judging panel. "They looked at videos of each one, and they picked the winner."

Drumming up prizes since that first year has been more problematic, but Mease has gotten a promise from Autodesk this semester to donate a full version of its 3ds Max 2008 software for each of his two animation class competitions.

The Structure of Design Classes
For his design classes, Mease has students tackle a simple assignment, creating a little roller. "It's orthographic-type drawing," he said. "Then we get into more complicated drawings, adding some dimension." From there, he said, the students do isometric drawings and then transition into assembly drawings. At each stage the drawings become more complicated, and the students apply other parts of the software suite.

As a final project for the design classes, Mease has each student design a paperclip holder. "They work under the premise that they have a factory that is going to make these new revolutionary paperclip holders," he said. "They have to create the drawings, the PowerPoint presentation, everything that's going to have to sell that product." The assignment lasts from two to two and a half weeks.

Those students who have taken the animation course have added to the assignment by "creating a rendering of the thing operating--showing it on a desk," he said. "They're tying everything together."

Program Specs
The students work on two-year-old Dell OptiPlex PCs with 2.8 GHz Pentium D dual-core 64bit processors, 1 GB RAM 80 GB hard drives, 8x DVD±RW burners, and Dell 17-inch flat panel monitors. Mease said he tries to have enough machines in the room so that two or three are always available for rendering work. "Some of the thrill rides required a render time of more than 24 hours, which ties up a computer," he said.

He also advises having a projector or networking software such as Danware NetOp available to demonstrate software. He prefers NetOp so that students can show something from their own stations or he can take control of a machine.

The software is pricey: The school pays $2,700 per year for 25 licenses for Animation Academy and $3,925 a year for the entire building's licenses for Design Academy. But the annual subscription also means it stays up to date. Mease said he budgets another $1,000 a year for reference books.

Although the two Academies include discussion forums on the Autodesk website, Mease hasn't seen any interest for them among his students. But he has seen a lot of students download trial versions of the software they're introduced to in his classes to work on at home. "I've had students who have downloaded Maya and told me what they could do with it versus 3ds Max," he said. "Student work at home has really increased partly for that reason," he said.

Mease encourages other teachers to try out the Academy programs, but it's not easy, he warns. "You have to be ready to spend a lot of hours learning the programs and keeping abreast of the technology," he said. "But I think the fact that it's current and [that] you can show a correlation between what students are learning in the classroom to what's happening in industry is a great thing."

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser covers high tech, business and higher education for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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