Organisms and Interactions: 6th Gr Sci (2 of 3)

My amphibian creation. (123d Creature)

Step 2: Build the Organisms

A challenge came from Quynh Tu, our 6th Grade Science teacher. She has a great organisms and ecosystems project that she wants to move from a poster-based product to an iPad-based one. As she describes it, the students have to create two organisms and describe them individually. Part of the description is the ecosystem in which they live and how they are adapted to it. The second level is that the organisms have to interact in some way (e.g. symbiotic, cooperative, parasitic). In the past, students have drawn their organisms out and labeled things on a poster. She’d like two main things to come out of “iPad-izing” the project:

  • Students can narrate the project, making them verbalize and expand their answers past the simpler poster labels, and
  • Students draw the ecosystem as well as the creatures, so that they have to describe more about the ecosystem’s effect on the creatures. She felt like this has gotten short shrift in the past.

I’ve broken this project down into three distinct stages, each with their own goals and tools:

  1. Build the Ecosystem
  2. Build the Organisms
  3. Assemble the Presentation/Movie

I covered Step 1 in a previous post. Here, we’ll explore Step 2. To the lab!

It’s Alive!

My first brainstorm took me back to a great post from iPad Art Room (which I can’t recommend highly enough as a source of creative iPad ideas) about Ink Blot Monsters. They used an app called Daily Monster ($2.99) to create a whole variety of interesting creatures. From their pictures, I can see that the background is blank, which is a key feature for us. Since I know that we’ll be putting these on top of our ecosystem pictures when we assemble the whole project, I need a blank or transparent background to work with in the image. I kicked the tires on several “create your own animal” websites as well, but found two common problems:

  1. They were mostly about combining features from existing animals. While this is fun, it’s not really at the heart of Quynh’s project where students are supposed to imagine the animal from the ground up. Different body parts from different animals would also imply different ecosystems, which breaks the ecosystem connection (although there’s an interesting connection to adaptation and specialization that could be made there).
  2. They universally came with a background image. I don’t want 6th Graders having to cut out the background image of all their animals by hand… no dice.

I’ve created a monster! (Daily Monster)

Daily Monster is a lot of fun to play with, and is a great creative art tool, but after working with it for a few minutes, I don’t think that it’s a good fit for this project. First, Daily Monster starts you off with an ink drop and directions to “Tap to Blow the Ink.” What happens next seems to be a randomly-generated ink blot: replicating the experience of doing ink blot drawings by hand. Again, great for art, but students would end up with having to create an organism which could match a given body shape, rather than creating the body that best fits their ideas.

Second, the extra elements are pretty cartoony – with the exception of the eyes (and a few beak options), most are anthropomorphic like my roller-skating bird friend here. Great art project, but weak on the science.

Next, I found 123d Creature (free) by Autodesk. This is a full 3D creature creator and renderer. I’m amazed that this app is free, frankly– even very recently any kind of 3D rendering program (except a few open source options) came with a price, and to find one on the iPad was a pleasant surprise.

My amphibian creation. (123d Creature)

My amphibian creation. (First ~10 minutes in 123d Creature)

When you start a new creature, you are presented with a humanoid skeleton: head, torso, two arms, two legs. The first step is to create your skeleton: add joints, manipulate limbs, scale or shape different body parts and pose the skeleton in your desired arrangement. Pose is interesting because I could envision that students may want to have their organism in a couple of different poses: for example, a profile for the organism description and an action pose for the interaction.

After posing the creature, you “bake the skeleton” to prepare it for sculpting, painting and rendering. In the sculpting step, you can further shape the limbs (i.e. flatten out for wings or separate blobs into claws). In the painting step, you have an array of color tools and a choice of paint or air brush.

Finally, you’re ready to save it to the camera roll. A variety of lighting effects and backgrounds can be added, but again we’re trying to avoid that to make it easier to put assemble items on a stage. This conveniently has a transparent background option, which will make that part even easier.

Honestly, the most exciting part about 123d Creature for me is that it appears to be Autodesk’s entry point for people to use their 3D printing services. They offer to print your creatures and ship them to you. If you have a 3D printer of your own, you can print the models out directly at school. Our 3D printing club students have been looking for ways to connect with classes– if we can successfully print a couple of creatures, it would be great to be able to actually print the students’ creatures once they’re created! I’ll follow-up with the 3D printing club on this to support.

123d Creature is a powerful app, and for students working on their first art app, it will be interesting to see how quickly they can learn to functionally operate it. The monster above was done about 10 minutes after I downloaded the app, but obviously a 6th grade learning curve will vary dramatically. This app will take some hands-on time and may have to have a little more reflective exploration: “what does this button do,” “what happens in this stage,” “how could you use this tool,” etc., before having the kids try and create their creature. I would anticipate a couple of false starts before kids settle on a model that they like and can finish.

Verdict: Definitely recommending 123d Creature. Will have to playtest with some teachers to get feedback on skill level and instruction time. Regardless, will pass this tool to the 3D Printing club students.

Next up, we assemble a final project! I’ll give you a hint… we’ll be asking students to explain everything about their project.

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