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3D Modeling for Historical Reconstruction

This lesson uses SketchUp to introduce participants to 3D modeling, particularly for the reconstruction of historical objects and spaces. The lesson plan includes two variations so that it can be taught as part of a semester-long course or as a one-shot workshop.

Published onNov 01, 2021
3D Modeling for Historical Reconstruction
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Session Specifics

One-shot, workshop, semester-long class, online learning

This lesson comes in two variations. Variation 1 is for cases where the session is run as part of a course, particularly a semester-long course covering multiple digital tools with humanities applications. It includes 45 minutes of discussion material to be presented during class, as well as activities for both before and after the class session.

Variation 2 is for cases where the session is run as a one-shot workshop. It consists of 90 minutes’ worth of material and activities.

It should be possible to run the workshop/class remotely. For Variation 2, however, it is helpful to have “floaters” who can work with participants who get stuck, particularly if the audience is on the larger side. This may be less feasible in a remote format.

Instructional Partners

The instructor should be comfortable using SketchUp. As described above, it is helpful to have floaters for Variation 2.

Audience

This lesson is designed for people with no prior SketchUp experience and is suitable for students at a range of academic levels, from high school to graduate school, as well as, for example, public library patrons. It is targeted at participants with some interest in public history, digital humanities, or new media. In cases where participants may not be familiar with those concepts by name, it may be helpful to provide contextualization by giving examples that participants may have encountered. For example, the instructor can ask if anyone in the session has visited a virtual exhibition on a museum website or used Google’s Ngram Viewer. They should explain that, like these examples, digital humanities uses computer-based tools to explore questions about history, literature, and art. For additional context, you may want to consult Appendix C in Additional Materials, which is a list of history-related 3D projects and games in varying stages of development.

Curricular Context

This lesson was not designed with reference to a specific curricular context. As suggested above, Variation 1 may be suitable for a course pertaining to public history, digital humanities, or new media. Variation 2, the one-shot, could be offered through a relevant academic department or through an independent cultural institution.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Participants will gain a basic familiarity with the mechanics of SketchUp, with a focus on features that are likely to be useful for historical reconstruction.

  2. Participants will consider the kinds of interpretive decisions that may be involved in virtually recreating historical objects and spaces.

  3. Participants will learn about examples of digital history projects that have incorporated SketchUp.

Preparation

Audience

In order to use SketchUp Free, participants will need to set up a Trimble account (Trimble is the company that currently owns SketchUp). The process is not time-consuming. In Variation 1, this is built into the pre-class preparation. In Variation 2, participants may do this before or at the beginning of the workshop.

Instructor

For Variation 2, the instructor will recreate the table model in real time. Because of this, the instructor should view the tutorial video beforehand and run through the steps in SketchUp. The Instructor’s Guide (Appendix B) includes a summary of the steps involved in making the table. The instructor may wish to have this on hand to refer to during the workshop.

3D Modeling for Historical Reconstruction: Tutorial Video

Technical Requirements

The workshop materials are based on SketchUp Free, which is free in non-production environments for non-commercial use. SketchUp Free is a browser-based application, so it is not necessary to install any software (the free desktop version, SketchUp Make 2017, is no longer being updated, but is still available for download here as of September 2021). Each participant must have access to a computer with an internet connection. If the participants will be using their own computers, I suggest advising them ahead of time to also bring a mouse, if possible. While a mouse is not absolutely necessary, it does make SketchUp easier to use, especially for beginners. The instructor should be able to share their screen, either with a projector in a physical classroom or using a screen-sharing feature in a platform like Zoom.

Materials

Instructor

  • Slides (Appendix D)

  • Instructor’s Guide (Appendix B)

Audience

  • Tutorial Video

  • Historical Objects: Photographs and Illustrations (Appendix A)

Session Instructions/Steps

Variation 1: Class session as part of a course

Before Class

Students should watch this twelve-minute tutorial video, which demonstrates the process of modeling a table in SketchUp using the following basic tools:

  • Line

  • Rectangle

  • Push/Pull

  • Select

  • Move

  • Arc

  • Follow Me

After setting up a Trimble account, students can practice recreating the table in SketchUp independently by following the steps in the video. The recommended practice time is approximately one hour. The point is not to ensure that they can reconstruct the table perfectly, but rather to help them get acquainted with SketchUp.

During Class

Debriefing the tutorial (5min)

The instructor should ask a few students to comment on their experiences trying out SketchUp, including problems they ran into and aspects of the program they appreciated or disliked.

3D modeling and historical reconstruction (15min)

The accompanying slides (Appendix D) include screenshots from digital history projects incorporating 3D modeling alongside the associated primary sources. The instructor should ask students to comment on the following:

  • What information is present in the 3D models that isn’t directly reflected in the primary sources?

  • How do you think the project creators made decisions about these attributes?

Approaching a historical object (25min)

The instructor should distribute the Historical Materials: Photographs and Illustrations (Appendix A) handout electronically. They may also consider providing a link to this lesson plan in case students would like to refer to the materials in the future. The instructor should split students into groups or, if in a virtual environment, assign students to breakout rooms. The handout includes links, as well as a selection of catalog records for furniture objects and illustrations of furniture objects (see list in Appendix A). Alternatively, the instructor can print out the catalog records themselves and pass them out. Each group will discuss a single object. Specifically, they should reflect on the following:

  • What information would we need to recreate this object in a 3D modeling program such as SketchUp?

  • What information can we get from this image?

  • What other information would we need that isn’t directly evident from this image?

  • What sources might we look to in order to make decisions about those attributes?

  • Why would we want to recreate this object in the first place? 

  • How would a model help people to understand this object better? 

  • What aspects of the object would a 3D model not convey?

The class should then regroup as a whole and report the results of their discussion.

After Class

The instructor should have each student select an object from the lesson materials and try modeling it before the next class session. The recommended time is about four hours. Again, the point is not to have them completely and perfectly reconstruct the object, but rather to move towards an understanding of the process of 3D reconstruction. The instructor should reiterate that this workshop serves as a basic introduction to SketchUp. It does not cover everything needed to create a rigorous historical project. There are many more advanced tutorials online for modeling specific types of shapes and objects; in particular, there are hundreds of tutorials on SketchUp’s official YouTube channel, as well as numerous third-party YouTube tutorials. Students might like to explore these external resources while modeling their chosen object.

At the next class meeting, the instructor should spend a few minutes discussing students’ experiences with this step. What challenges did they encounter? What outside sources, if any, did they use to make decisions about the object? Students may also wish to share their objects, either by screen-sharing in the context of a virtual meeting or by showing the object on a laptop/classroom computer.

Variation 2: One-shot workshop

Before Class

If possible, the instructor should ask participants to make a Trimble account beforehand.

Introduction: 3D modeling and historical reconstruction (15 min)

The accompanying slides (Appendix D) include screenshots from digital history projects incorporating 3D modeling alongside the associated primary sources. The instructor should share the slides and ask students to comment on the following:

  • What information is present in the 3D models that isn’t directly reflected in the primary sources?

  • How do you think the project creators made decisions about these attributes?

SketchUp crash course (50 min)

At this point, the instructor should direct participants to the SketchUp Free website (app.sketchup.com). Students should set up a Trimble account if they did not do so beforehand.

In the one-shot format, rather than having the participants watch the video tutorial independently, the instructor will run a live demo as participants follow along. As described in the Preparation section, the instructor should review the tutorial video and practice replicating its steps beforehand. The instructor should also have the Instructor’s Guide (Appendix B) on hand, which consists of brief verbal and pictorial outlines of the steps.

It is best to move slowly through the tutorial and emphasize the following points:

  • When drawing lines and shapes, SketchUp does not require the user to click and drag. Users can click once to start drawing and then click again to finish the line or shape.

  • The instructor should make sure to point out inferences (i.e., midpoints, endpoints)

After the tutorial, make sure all participants are caught up. Optionally, the group may take a short break at this point before moving on to the next section of the workshop.

Approaching a historical object (25 min)

The instructor should distribute the Historical Materials: Photographs and Illustrations (Appendix A) handout electronically. They may also consider providing a link to this lesson plan in case students would like to refer to the materials in the future. The instructor should split students into groups or, if in a virtual environment, assign students to breakout rooms. The handout includes links, as well as a selection of catalog records for furniture objects and illustrations of furniture objects (see Appendix A). Alternatively, the instructor can print out the catalog records themselves and pass them out. Each group will discuss a single object. Specifically, they should reflect on the following:

  • What information would we need to recreate this object in a 3D modeling program such as SketchUp?

  • What information can we get from this image?

  • What other information would we need that isn’t directly evident from this image?

  • What sources might we look to in order to make decisions about those attributes?

  • What additional skills would you need in order to make this object in SketchUp?

The class should then regroup as a whole and report the results of their discussion. In closing, the instructor should reiterate that this workshop serves as a basic introduction to SketchUp. It does not cover everything needed to create a rigorous historical project. There are many more advanced tutorials online for modeling specific types of shapes and objects; in particular, there are hundreds of tutorials on SketchUp’s official YouTube channel, as well as numerous third-party YouTube tutorials.

Optional follow-up

Invite participants to try modeling one of the objects in the handout after they leave. Provide them with an email address to send screenshots of their models. If the students grant their permission, the instructor can post the screenshots to a departmental or institutional website.

Assessment

In Appendix E, I have provided a model for a short assessment survey, which instructors can adjust to fit the needs of the institution and participants. During the group activity, the instructor may also wish to consider asking a member from each group to take notes and turn them in.

Additionally, for Variation 1, participants can contribute verbal feedback about the helpfulness of the tutorial video and their success in following along. The objects resulting from the post-class exercise and participants’ reflections on the experience will provide an indication of whether they have grasped the mechanics of SketchUp and/or the questions inherent in historical reconstruction. Consider having students post screenshots of their models to the course website.

Similarly, for Variation 2, the results of the table-constructing exercise will demonstrate whether the crash course has met its goal. Students can share their finished or partly-finished desks with the person sitting next to them (if the class is in-person) or by screen-sharing (if the class is held remotely).

Reflection

This lesson plan is based on a workshop that I delivered in November 2018 while visiting Wellesley College with the Bryn Mawr Women in Science project team. The original workshop was a live demo with participants following along in real time, similar to Variation 2. Variation 1 employs strategies from “Workshopping the Workshop: Moving Your Sessions Beyond Buttonology” (Zoe LeBlanc, et al.), which was published in the previous Toolkit. Variation 1, thus, allows students to practice modeling in pre- and post-class exercises, and devotes most of the actual class session to the discussion of conceptual considerations for historical 3D modeling projects. I retained the “crash course” style for Variation 2 for one-shot contexts.

Because of COVID, one of my goals was to produce a lesson plan that would be suitable for both remote and in-person instruction. I also wanted to keep the potential audience as broad as possible. This lesson is meant to convey only very basic skills for historical reconstruction work and to solicit critical thinking about the limitations of the SketchUp tool. The survey in Appendix E is based on a feedback survey that I have used when teaching database and citation management workshops to first-year undergraduate engineering students at Northeastern University.

Additional Materials

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