Wow! 3D Content Awakens the Classroom
Three-dimensional classroom materials are thrilling both students and teachers with their stirring visuals and powerful impact on comprehension and test scores.
From her first encounter with stereoscopic 3D technology designed for classroom instruction, Megan Timme sensed it could be transformative. “I was so engaged,” says Timme, principal at Hamilton Park Pacesetter Magnet School in Dallas, an elementary magnet school focused on fine arts and leadership. “When I thought about all the possibilities of what could be done with it, I knew it would be fantastic.”
Last spring, when she began pilot-testing 3D content in her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, Timme wasn’t disappointed. Students donning special 3D glasses were immediately absorbed in the immersive experience and caught up in the images that seemed to soar from the projector. They learned how to calculate the volume of unusual shapes through objects that could be moved around and viewed from all angles. They hopped aboard an asteroid (virtually speaking, anyway) for a tour of the solar system. They witnessed the life cycle of a plant, from seed through reproduction. They dissected a frog and went inside the human body to see how antibiotics work.
Timme observed benefits for all types of students. Those who tended to be disruptive or inattentive during traditional instruction were so enamored they uttered nary a peep. Those with limited English proficiency suddenly had a visual that helped them grasp concepts where mere words had failed. Gifted kids were making so many new connections and asking such provocative questions that the lessons often mined territory far beyond what Timme and her teachers had anticipated. Now she has begun to consider what else the technology could have in store for her students.
Imagine what could be done for lower grades in math instruction, she says. “To be able to show the kids in 3D what’s actually happening when you’re subtracting, I think would be a very powerful piece.”
Many of Timme’s colleagues are likewise starting to imagine the possibilities. Now that 3D-ready projectors have hit the education market—it’s estimated that 1 million will be sold this year—a technology familiar to movie theaters and becoming more so in living rooms is finding a new home in the classroom.
What’s not as familiar is how the 3D effect is produced. The DLP chip technology that enables 2D projectors to play 3D content was developed by Texas Instruments (TI). It uses millions of microscopic digital mirrors that are manipulated at rapid speeds to produce two simultaneous images on a screen, one for the left eye and one for the right. Presenting each eye with a slightly different image is what creates the illusion of depth. The 3D effect is generated by viewing the screen through special active-shutter glasses that open and close filters in front of each eye in sync with the images. It is the same technology used to create a third dimension in movie theaters. To be sure, this is nothing like your parents’ 3D.
“The image quality is now much crisper, and the separation between what the left eye sees and what the right eye sees is much better,” says John Reder, education market development manager for TI’s DLP division. “And the content providers have gotten smarter in the effects they produce.”
Reder credits Avatar, the blockbuster 2009 film directed by James Cameron, with demonstrating what the technology was capable of and accelerating the movement toward 3D in cinema. Once TI saw kids flocking to 3D movies, the company began to target the education market.
Another factor influencing the move was TI’s discovery that it could add DLP to existing 2D machines at little or no extra cost. Knowing that districts wouldn’t have to pay a premium for 3D-ready projectors enabled the company to pursue what might be called a Field of Dreams strategy—if we build it, they will come. TI figured if it provided the schools with the technology, then the content providers would quickly follow suit with the content to exploit it.
To a degree, the company figured correctly. TI keeps a list of vendors specializing in 3D educational content for the education market on its DLP website. This summer it was up to nine: Amazing Interactives, JTM Concepts, Cyber-Anatomy, Designmate, Eon Reality, NavTech, Neotek, Nvidia, and Stereoscopic Player. Mostly focused on math and science, they are offering everything from instructional videos to mirrored learning objects and complex simulations.
With 3D becoming more commonplace in students’ lives through expansion in the cinema and home markets, and with more districts engaging in “future-proofing”—ensuring that the new projectors they purchase are 3D-capable in anticipation of a growing trend—TI expects that list to swell in the near future.
“The content providers know this is coming and see it as a way to expand their libraries and provide new content to schools that delivers an immersive experience,” says Jamie Beringer, customer marketing manager for TI DLP. “As the install base grows larger, the market will organically grow and mature, much like the cinema industry has.” Beringer also predicts that large-scale providers of digital classroom content will soon stream or provide 3D content to be downloaded via server.
So with the technology more available to them, schools are starting to introduce 3D content into their classrooms and judge its effect on learning. Thus far, they have found it to be more than an attention-grabber for students, as evidenced by pilot studies in which students have demonstrated greater comprehension in less time from 3D lessons, and performed significantly better on tests than peers who learned the same material without the technology.
Such results allayed Timme’s concern that the 3D effect might add flash to the curriculum but no substance. “I didn’t want to do a dog-and-pony show,” she says. “This didn’t replace my teachers and the great instruction they give; it gave them a visual to work off of while they taught.”
Taken in by the wow factor, students are clearly drawn to the stereoscopic 3D experience. But are they learning from it? Can the value 3D adds to the curriculum be measured? Several educators who have pilot-tested the question say yes.
Rock Island, IL-based JTM Concepts began collecting data on the educational impact of its 3D content in 2003. Early test cases involved a 3D lesson on the anatomy of the inner ear that was given to high school science classes from the local Rock Island-Milan School District and an earth science simulation shown to a group of sixth-grade classes from the district.
Based on impressive results, which showed that students who observed the 3D simulations made a big jump from their pre-lesson to post-lesson test scores while outperforming control groups who received traditional instruction, the company in 2005 received $200,000 from the Illinois State Board of Education to broaden the study to more than 1,000 students in grades 3 to 8. JTM used the funding to buy projectors and other equipment for the schools in the study and worked with a group of retired teachers to develop 3D simulations that taught how to compute the volume of complex shapes. Working with an independent researcher from Western Illinois University, the company then assessed the effect of the simulations on learning.
The results virtually duplicated those of the smaller study. Students who observed the 3D lesson improved an average of 32 percent from pretest to post-test, with substantial gains in every subgroup.
While recognizing the jolt of energy stereoscopic 3D brings to the classroom, Tracey Masamoto, director of JTM Concepts, contends that its true power as a teaching tool is its appeal to the growing proportion of students who learn visually. “We’re raising a generation of right-brain learners, with all of the video games they play and the TV they watch,” Masamoto says. “When we put them in a classroom where they’re expected to learn only by reading from textbooks, we’re not being as effective as we could be at reaching them.”
JTM’s 3D library now includes some 60 interactive simulations—offering teachers the ability to manipulate what’s shown on the screen—with content for all grades. Most of the simulations focus on math and science, covering complex subject matters that can’t be easily learned in 2D. Masamoto believes the visuals make the abstract more concrete. “From what the teachers have told us,” she says, “this helps the students pick up the concepts more quickly, and they end up being able to cover more ground in the same amount of time.”
That was exactly the experience of Paul Hansen, the teacher who conducted the lesson on computing volume. Hansen says 3D was able to get difficult material across to students in just a single lesson in a way that 2D has no hope of doing.
“This is something that’s very difficult to comprehend,” he says. “You can’t just show it on a piece of paper. You can’t draw it on a chalkboard. You have to be able to look at it in three dimensions to see the composite volume of an irregular shape. There are standardized tests that give you a drawing of a shape made of little cubes and you have to figure out the volume of it. A lot of kids have a hard time looking at that 2D thing and picturing the 3D version that would actually exist if you could take it apart. This particular simulation does a fantastic job helping kids get that picture in their heads.”
Lauren Sanders wondered whether 3D content would be a good fit for her classroom. Sanders teaches math to middle school students at Dallas’ Shelton School, a K-12 building that bills itself as “the nation’s largest private school for learning-different students.” Last spring, Sanders conducted a weeklong pilot using the JTM software on symmetry and volume of complex shapes. Dividing her classes into control and test groups, she found that students given the 3D lesson showed far better comprehension, both in the types of questions they asked and in post-lesson testing, than the students who received conventional instruction.
“My kids are not auditory learners,” says Sanders. “They have to see things, feel things, look at them from all angles; 3D allowed them to do that.” In one lesson, she says students asked to calculate the volume of a stack of rectangles they were viewing on a 2D drawing struggled to understand where there might be sides they couldn’t see. With the 3D technology, they were able to break the rectangles apart, rotate them, and view all sides. In a lesson on rotational symmetry, being able to turn an image to show whether it looked the same from all angles boosted students’ understanding.
So What Next?
Other technologies are starting to emerge that promise to augment the 3D learning experience. Next spring, Smart Technologies is set to introduce a sample pack of 3D learning content to be used with its new Smart Document Camera 330, which the company calls the first document camera designed for mixed-reality education. The technology uses physical objects bearing digital markers that enable the camera to display enriched content on a Smart Board, the company’s interactive whiteboard model. For example, a document camera reading a flash card with a digital marker may display a 3D image of Earth’s layers. That content is shown on the Smart Board, where users can view and interact with it. In addition, Promethean now offers 3D capability with its interactive whiteboard.
“There are some concepts where asking them to look at a drawing on the whiteboard or just to take the teacher’s word for it isn’t good enough,” Sanders says, noting that her students with attention deficits were much more focused than usual. Although a week would normally be too little time to teach the concepts, the students grasped them better than when Sanders spent two to three weeks on the same material without 3D. She was also pleased to find there was no learning curve for implementing the technology.
“I plugged in the projector, turned on my computer, and was ready to go,” Sanders says. Sold on 3D, she is now intent on exposing her colleagues at her school to it.
Timme, the principal at Hamilton Park Pacesetter Magnet School, also had little trouble introducing the technology into her classrooms. Her entire pilot program went seamlessly, with even the less technologically proficient teachers experiencing no difficulties. “It was one of the easiest implementations I’ve had as a principal,” she says, adding that nearly all of her teachers have expressed a desire to incorporate 3D instruction.
But even as educators get on board with 3D, they’re held back by the limited breadth of the available content. Timme would like to see 3D expanded to all grades. She would also like to see more variety in science and math—from 3D comparisons of human and plant cells and tours of ecosystems to simulations enabling students in lower grades to see how regrouping is done in subtraction. And Timme and others say there is ample room to move into other subjects, such as social studies—taking students to historic sites, for example—and even reading, by providing 3D visuals to illustrate the concepts in the text.
TI’s Beringer says teachers are already indicating they won’t wait on the content makers for too long. “Last year,” she says, “the question everyone had was, ‘Where is the content?’ Now it’s, ‘When can I create my own content?’”
Or better yet, get their students to do it. That motivation, Beringer says, is causing the market to change. “A company called Reallusion has a software program called iClone that will take in video and still images and allow the students to output 3D. We are going to be partnering with it to put this capability into our pilot-program schools and let the kids create some content.” She also says the company hopes to test out in those same pilots a still camera Fuji has developed that can take a picture in 3D.
Len Scrogan, director of instructional technology for the Boulder Valley School District in Boulder, CO, considers student-created material to be the highest form of 3D content. Scrogan has given considerable thought to the topic. For his blog on 3D learning, Scrogan created a “3D content taxonomy,” displaying a hierarchy of content categories based on their educational value.
To Scrogan, the lowest forms of content from the teaching standpoint are 3D movies, which, though “grabbers,” tend to represent a more passive learning experience. Scrogan is more interested in the next level on his hierarchy—3D learning objects and simulations that can make difficult concepts understandable: the ability to dissect and see the human body from the inside, or to traverse the solar system, stopping on each planet to explore.
“We want 3D content that produces higher-order thinking,” Scrogan says, “whether it’s provoking questions students wouldn’t normally ask or forcing them to react to new circumstances.”
In March, he began piloting 3D math and science content in four schools, covering elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, from special needs to AP science students. “We wanted to see where the sweet spot was for this,” Scrogan says. “Typically, our teachers aim the technology at topics where they can make something concrete out of something that used to be abstract—where you can make something come alive that used to be talk-talk-talk.”
Scrogan considers the pilot Part 1 of his district’s venture into 3D content. He says he’s looking ahead to Part 2—a second pilot that will involve student-generated 3D content. Scrogan found a high school in rural North Carolina whose 3D program is at a point where he wants to take his: using students to generate content rather than buying it from manufacturers. “The learning objects that we buy—their kids make them for their teachers,” Scrogan says.
He is now arranging to have one of his middle school classrooms meet with the North Carolina students by videoconference to learn from them how to create 3D content. “We’re just waiting for the software and we’re good to start organizing,” he says.
Scrogan knows of only three vendors that support stereoscopic 3D content creation: Reallusion—to be used in the pilot—Eon Reality, and Unity. But he says he expects that to change, with the potential of reducing the high cost of manufacturer-produced 3D content. “The manufacturers need to bring it more in line with traditional software, because the kids will do it for free. This is the future. Teachers know what they want, and if software producers don’t create it, these bright kids will do it.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of THE Journal.