It's animated, and a game--and highly educational

Note: This is a reconstituted copy of an article initially posted in the IT Times in June 2008. This copy, which lacks the photos and links of the original, was retrieved in November 2013 via the Wayback machine Internet archive.

Campus animator Bob Burnett clearly loves his work. He happily discussed all aspects of it during a recent interview, moving easily from the cooperative habits of 3-D animators, to the amped-up software created by new computer games, to the prototype of a simulated brewery that just helped food engineering professor R. Paul Singh win a federal grant.

Listen awhile, though, and it becomes clear not just that Burnett is the right guy for his job, but that UC Davis could easily see wider use of instructional animation in the years ahead, especially in 3-D. The stage is set:

--Animation software has grown better, cheaper and easier to use in the past few years. Innovations in 3-D film-making and computer gaming have created new tools that are excellent for manipulating images, Burnett said, "and they don't have to be wasted on stealing cars and shooting people."

--Advances in classroom technology make animation easier for instructors and students to view and use. Faster Internet connections and brawnier computers make animation as simple to access as YouTube.

--Animation is a powerful teacher. Singh, a highly accomplished professor who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in February, has been creating and using animations since the mid-1990s because they help his students understand complex concepts more easily, and remember them longer.

--Animation in 3-D is more powerful yet. "Physical sizes, dimensions and shapes which are difficult to express in a 2-D animation can be explained much easier in 3-D," Singh said. "Instead of taking a large problem and breaking it down into small parts, you approach the large problem."

Three-dimensional animated simulations even l et you enter the large problem, potentially understanding it better as you go.

(These images aren't 3-D in the sense that viewers wear special glasses and see objects floating in air. These are on-screen images that convey depth, as well as height and width. The result is more like a Pixar movie, as opposed to classic Disney.)

Burnett, Jeremy Cooke and Armando Arbizo make up the animation group in the Academic Technology Services area of Information and Educational Technology. They have created animations for instructors at UC Davis in the sciences, medicine and the humanities, for subjects ranging from plant roots and eye anatomy to digestion, blood vessels and museum exhibits. Their output ranges from simple 2-D animations to 3-D simulations.

A vascular animation that Burnett and Cooke created with a neurologist at the UC Davis Medical Center earned Burnett and Cooke an invitation to a national medical illustrators' conference this summer, where they will demonstrate the animation and how they made it.

Their most recent work includes BrewSim, a "prototype for a brewing simulation" created by Singh and Burnett. It's only in its early stages, but could lead to bigger teaching simulations for a wider range of food-science students--a typical example of where educational animation might be headed.

Come on, let's build a fermenter

BrewSim would let students equip or manipulate a 3-D representation of a brewery. It would be an advanced game, basically, with interactive master and apprentice levels that offer students different things to do. Students could create some of the simulations as projects with other students, Burnett suggested. Engineering students could be assigned to create a fermenter.

Singh and Burnett chose beer because the campus has a brewery they could model.

"We are still building it," Singh said in April. "We showed some parts to students in winter quarter, and got some good f eedback."

Parts of BrewSim were shown to two groups of students for a survey overseen by Leslie Madsen-Brooks, coordinator for faculty and teaching assistant programs in the Teaching Resources Center. Ninety-two percent of the students had played computer games; nearly half said they had played several types of games, for more than 100 hours total. Most agreed that simulations are best for "allowing us to do and see things that are too large, small, slow, or fast in real life."

"There isn't much to the BrewSim yet, so the students didn't have too many comments about the BrewSim itself, except that they really seemed to want a point of view other than 'first-person shooter,' " Madsen-Brooks said. (The term refers to games presented from the player's perspective; it doesn't have to simulate weapons.) "They seemed to like the idea of having a virtual brewing lab, because it might decrease the amount of time they spent in labs waiting for chemical reactions to take place."

Singh also received good notices from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Higher Education Challenge Grant Program. In early May, it awarded him $142,134 to develop educational games based on food processing. The BrewSim prototype was part of his project application.

The project will develop brewery, dairy and tomato cannery simulations, his application said, increasing the supply of "innovative and highly engaging instructional materials for all food science programs."

"We are developing [BrewSim] as a game," Singh said. "You are learning something, but also you are being kept engaged in the process. You are challenging yourself, or working with partners or someone else and challenging each other. There's considerable more learning going on in this process."

"Long term I'd like to have a simulation of various food-processing plants that we can use in our teaching, at various levels," he said. "Elementary at the freshmen level, and bringing in more com plexity in physics, biology and so on, for different levels up to senior. And then once we have created that virtual plant, we can go to another operation, such as dairy, winery or canning."

"A lot of collaboration can be done with this," Burnett said, "and it doesn't just have to be computer science students."

Viral marketing

The cost of making an animation, Cooke said, depends on what an instructor wants to do. But creating animations takes less money and time than it used to.

Powerful 3-D modeling programs sell for a few hundred dollars. They include Blender, Silo, Google SketchUp, Cheetah3D and ZBrush. Adobe's Photoshop and After Effects, and Autodesk's Maya, are available at educational discounts. At the Association of Medical Illustrators conference this July in Indianapolis, Burnett and Cooke will show how they used Maya to create the vascular animation for Dr. Charles DeCarli, as well as demonstrate Unity 3D, used to make games and simulations.

Burnett said animators can help instructors learn to use the software. "We'll kind of bootstrap them along. We'll be helping other people do it themselves," he said. "You can learn it yourself."

Burnett said the IET-ATS Programming Group--in particular, Earl Schellhous and Simon Dvorak--contributed greatly to the BrewSim project. Group manager Charlie Turner said IET-ATS intends to keep increasing its expertise in gaming technologies as they pertain to educational applications, especially simulations. Multiple grants to fund this type of work have made it possible.

Cooke, who also works in video for IET, estimates that the animation group has done ten to twenty 3-D animations on campus in the past few years. Sometimes they're part of videos, he said. More than half of the unit's animation work is now in 3-D.

Instructors approach their unit for a variety of reasons. Typically they investigate animation as a spinoff of graphics, video or other more tr aditional work they have already done, Burnett said. Cooke said they also get word-of-mouth references.

"Someone sees something, they talk to someone," Cooke said. "The way we work is viral."

They have been showing samples of their work to various campus groups. Burnett and Liz Gibson, director of IET-Academic Technology Services (ATS), demonstrated 3-D animation to the Campus Council for Information Technology in March.

Good thing we didn't ask in 2005

So, what would Singh tell other faculty about 3-D animation? Where is it strong, where is it weak?

"A few years ago I would have said it was hard, slow, and the software was somewhat more complicated," he said. Singh likes to share his work over the Internet, so other people can use it and offer feedback that improves his material. "The previous programs weren't good for that. The learning curves were longer. Computers would crash."

"It's much, much better now, which reduces the cost," he said. Instructors can use the shared information created by computer games the last two years, "sometimes for zero cost. Our interest is more pedagogical, but we can draw on that."

"In my own teaching, in terms of making things more effective," Singh said, "animation is worth the time."

To learn more about the campus animation group, contact Burnett at (530) 754-5617 or