Creating 3D animations of laboratory experiments using open source tools
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The importance of laboratory experiments in engineering education is well accepted. Though such experiments are part of the curriculum, commonly encountered problems in developing countries are: a) availability of infrastructure (which differs from place to place) b) maintenance of the laboratories (which has substantial implications on the results) and c) consistent explanation methodology (which depends primarily on the lab instructors). Animation is an effective way of augmenting the learning of lab experiments. Two dimensional (2D) animation is widely prevalent, and has been shown to be successful in many areas. Advent of three dimensional (3D) animation has expanded the possibilities and scope of the content in many ways. 3D animation not only continues to have the advantages offered by 2D, like interactivity and reusability, but also adds a whole new dimension of visualization possibilities. These include cross sections (to show the internal construction or assembly of an object), walkthroughs (synthesized video travel within the object) and different viewing angles (views that may not possible in real world). 3D animation has been used in eLearning in different domains but high cost of proprietary tools and scarcity of trained personnel for the content creation has not extended the reach as expected. Cheaper and more user friendly solutions are certainly required for wide accessibility, especially for developing countries. Blender (www.blender.org) is a popular Open source 3D animation package, typically used for entertainment domain. It is free and is available for various platforms viz Windows, Apple, and Linux. However, we did not find any literature on using Blender for eLearning animations. In this paper we examine the suitability of Blender for content creation in eLearning. We present a methodology as well as a case study, of using Blender to create eLearning content for Chemical Engineering Labs. The experiment selected is a Vapour Liquid Equilibrium process from the curriculum of undergraduate Chemical Engineering. This experiment is suitable for the usage of 3D animation because of two main factors: (i) The complex assembly of different components, and (ii) The size of the actual apparatus, varies from 4-16 feet and it is expensive for replication in smaller institutions. We found that Blender has most of the desired features to create the eLearning 3D animation. Students who viewed the content found it useful and enjoyed working with it. We were also able to export the 3D models to an open source repository. We believe that the proposed methodology can be: (i) used to scale the 3D animated content creation of lab experiments, and (ii) adopted by other institutions elsewhere.
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