January 4, 2011

School spilled over to a Saturday recently, when more than 60 students and their teachers from around the state gathered in a computer lab in the University of Kentucky's W.T. Young Library. UK's Environmental and Natural Resources Initiative in the College of Agriculture and the Tracy Farmer Institute of Sustainability and the Environment hosted the event, "SketchUp Your School Saturday." The purpose was to teach middle school and high school students techniques for creating computer-generated, three-dimensional models.

The gathering was part of the National Science Foundation-funded program, Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers, or ITEST. It's a program that connects Kentucky students and teachers with experts in the fields of geospatial thinking, geographic information system (GIS), global positioning system (GPS) and 3D modeling. Experts in the College of Agriculture, the Tracy Farmer Institute and across UK are currently working with 14 Kentucky schools, but are hoping to increase that number in the coming year.

"The whole idea behind using GPS, GIS and modeling is to get them thinking about their community and their space, and to help them see what's going on in their area by doing water sampling and plotting the data from the tests on maps," said Kevin Hough, one of the program's teachers.

Hough was on hand during the Saturday session to teach the free 3D modeling program, SketchUp. In preparation, the students took 360-degree digital photographs of their schools, which they brought with them to use during the exercise. Hough showed them how to create the wire-frame for their buildings and how to transfer their pictures onto the frame.

Jan Gibson, 4H Youth development extension agent in Perry County, joined students and art teacher Anna Thompson from Roy G. Eversole Middle School and Hazard High School in the project.

"They learn observational skills and teamwork, of course. And communication. And then the technology," she said. "They'll have the building blocks for more advanced things after this."

Tim Combs, 11, a sixth-grader at Roy G. Eversole Middle School, was enthusiastic about getting to work on the computer.

"I've learned how to make a building," he said. "It's very hard. That's why we need so much help, it's so hard."

When asked if he would do more of this when he got back home, he replied, "I guarantee it."Scott County Middle School science teacher Rebecca Saager has been part of the ITEST program for some time.

"This is one of the things I can introduce to my eighth graders that they get very excited about learning and doing and participating in class," she said. "That's a treat in itself for an eighth grader."

Using GPS and GIS, Saager's students spent the fall terms mapping out a walking trail along the Elkhorn Creek. Her goal is to get students started on building 3D models of objects found along the trail.

"We've done the biological testing of the water, and we're trying to enhance the Elkhorn Creek as an asset to our community," she said. "But the kids come in as a blank page for a lot of this technology, so it's taken half the year to get them to the point where they understand three-dimensional."

Hough said he chose SketchUp, because it's free and any school system has access to it. The goal that day was to create models of their schools that the students would submit to Google Warehouse for consideration for Google Earth's 3D layer. Hough wasn't sure how many, if any, of the models Google would accept, but he said it was a start.

Schools interested in participating in the ITEST program should contact Carol Hanley, member of the Environmental and Natural Resources Initiative and associate director of the Tracy Farmer Institute at 859-257-3785 or chanley@uky.edu.

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