Encouraging sustainability discussions through 3D design

By Richard Smith. Posted

We can encourage discussion about climate change through the design of 3D objects such as solar panels

Originally published in Hello World Issue 19: Sustainability and Computing, June 2022. All information true at the time of original publishing.

How can we encourage discussion about climate change through designing 3D objects? Richard Smith introduces the create, question, discuss process

During a lesson in which students were creating 3D models of wind turbines, a ten-year-old student asked, “Why do most turbines have three blades rather than four?” This sort of question can really support good-quality discussion in the context of climate change, and I view this as part of a create, question, discuss process. Students first create something; then, as they become involved in the creative process of an object, a range of questions are likely to come to mind, which, in turn, informs discussion. In this article, I will outline how we can encourage discussion about climate change with primary-school students through the design of 3D objects.

The ‘create’ stage

I asked students to create a model of a solar panel on the online 3D platform Tinkercad. Before getting started, it’s helpful for teachers to explain that we can make 3D objects from materials such as cardboard, clay, or paper, or a digital model can be created using computer-aided design (CAD) software. I have also found it useful for the teacher to explain four concepts using Tinkercad:

  • Models are created on a flat plane that can be rotated and angled

  • Models are made of existing 3D shapes that can be dragged around and resized

  • The 3D shapes can either be solid or hollow

  • The individual 3D shapes can be grouped together to create a new shape that can be moved, resized, or copied and pasted

The great thing about creating a solar panel is that only cuboids are required as a basis. These can be copied and grouped. Students can use other shapes such as a cylinder for the solar panel stand, if they choose to. During the creation stage, I use words such as ‘array’ and ‘polygon’ to illustrate that computing and maths have vocabulary in common.

When students use Tinkercad, I find that there is a range of reactions. Some students find it easy to create and manipulate the 3D shapes. By using different viewpoints, they manage to line objects up perfectly. For these students, you could stretch them to use the ‘codeblocks’ option in which they use block-based coding to create their shapes (helloworld.cc/codeblocks). Others really struggle to rotate, resize, and lift objects above the flat plane. To support these students, you can:

  • Simplify the project: for example, a basic version would be made up of just two shapes: a cuboid to represent the panel and a second cuboid for the stand.

  • Introduce keyboard shortcuts: for example, Ctrl + Up Arrow lifts the shape upwards. I provide students with a help sheet (helloworld.cc/tinkerhelp).

  • Use terminology: for example, use ‘bird’s-eye view’ and ‘looking at it from the front’ to reinforce language such as ‘top view’ and ‘front view’.

You can access my full lesson plan at helloworld.cc/solarlesson and an accompanying video at helloworld.cc/solarvideo.

The ‘question’ and ‘discuss’ stages

The creation stage allows questions to occur naturally, as opposed to being set by the teacher. Here are three examples of questions from my students as they were creating their model solar panels:

  1. How are they made waterproof?

  2. Why don’t we use more of them?

  3. How do they work?

The question stage provides an opportunity for educators to spot gaps in understanding — for example, when students ask, “How does the solar panel get electricity from the Sun?”, rather than “How is solar energy from the Sun converted into electricity?” This stage also directly feeds the discussion stage, in which discussions can take place either informally or formally, with associated research via books or the internet.

These discussions tend to fall into two categories. The first category is where the discussion centres around quite specific or narrow questions, such as “Do the solar panels overheat?” These types of question provide valuable opportunities for students to go away and carry out some research — in this example, research into materials and scientific processes. The second category is where discussion centres around wider or less specific questions, such as “Why don’t we use more of them?” These types of discussion often link well to other subjects and can be used as a starting point for broader project work, displays, assemblies, and even a home/school project that involves parents and carers.

As a next step, I am going to help students to create other objects linked to sustainability through the create, question, discuss process. For example, in the case of the solar panel model, it is critical that we consider how to store the energy created for later use. Students could therefore design batteries to store energy, using basic shapes such as cuboids and cylinders. Questions such as “How can the batteries be recycled?” are then likely to arise, which will inform discussion. Overall, this process is a powerful way of allowing for rich, student-led discussion on meaningful topics such as sustainability — try it out for yourself!


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