There are several software tools anyone can use to build objects, buildings, planes, trains, or whatever. The only limit is your imagination and the 3D software. Plus in a classroom setting or at home, there is no mess to clean up.
The software allows you to work hands on to create things. In some cases, the 3D software tool will let you save a file in a format that can be printed with a 3D printer. But 3D printing is not required.
The hardest part of 3D software tools might be to come up with a design. If you’re a teacher, probably you should find or create a basic design for kids who need a place to start. Building the place you live, or the inside of the school or other building, also might be an easy start point.
The artistic aspect of 3D software tools makes this type of software interesting. To build a room, you have to see the room. To see a room, you have to look hard to notice every detail, measure heights and distances, and decide what details to leave in and out. While these observation skills are used in programming, indeed in any field of study, with 3D software these skills are primarily visual and artistic. Quality is determined by how faithfully you represent an object, as well as how well you deviate from simple copying of an object.
Here are options for 3D software tools. We’ll start with the simplest 3D software tools then list software with more options. Links are at the bottom of this article, as always, and you can print this page for easy reference.
Build With Chrome
A collaboration between Google and LEGO, this software works in Chrome web browsers. You can build LEGO buildings with different brick types. You can build on a map, either your location or somewhere else, which adds excitement and interest. There’s also a Build Academy which is the best place to start learning how to use the software.
Click the Build button to get started building with LEGOs. Aside from the Build button, the main navigation is a small button at the bottom right of the Chrome browser. Click this button to see work others have done (click an image to see their model in your workspace), your builds, and other easy ways to get started.
This is a terrific way to get kids thinking in three dimensions. Everyone knows LEGOs. And Build with Chrome includes different brick types, sizes, and colors.
Build with Chrome also works with Chrome browsers on your smart phone and tablets. And there are many YouTube videos to check out, plus a few on Vimeo.
This 3D software tool probably is the best place to start if you do not want to work with LEGOs and need a simple interface. SketchUp has a free version and a paid professional version. There are many ways to learn the software online, and to find support, but SketchUp also is fairly easy to install, load, then play with to achieve different effects. People use SketchUp to create some amazing buildings and populated street level views that look like elaborate drawings.
The main navigation is a set of horizontal menus, a title bar with tool icons, and a status bar at the bottom of the screen. The interface is mostly clean and not too overwhelming with options. Yet you can create many detailed models.
This 3D software tool also includes extensions, free models you can include with your SketchUp projects. If you need the perfect sofa for your project, chances are someone has created a model you can use.
SketchUp also writes to the STL format used by 3D printers. And there are a number of tutorials on YouTube and Vimeo.
This free open source 3D software tool offers an incredible range of tools and effects, as shown in this demo reel. The software has been used professionally for television, movies, advertising, and games. But it’s not too complicated to learn. And it would be a natural evolution from SketchUp which appears geared towards static models. Blender does models but it also does action over time. And you can create people, animals, and characters with Blender.
The interface has a ton of features organized into docks on the left and right side. While it might look complicated, if you seek out the tutorials, you will find the interface is not difficult to use. You have to learn based on what you want to create, the same way you do with Photoshop or similar visual design software.
Blender also is unusual because you can write Python scripts to interact with the software. For older kids, Blender might be an interesting way to teach Python, or extend their knowledge of Python. Overall, older kids and teachers might find Blender highly rewarding for time spent learning the software. You would be hard pressed to exhaust the potential of the software.
Support is offered a few ways, through a Stack Exchange forum, an IRC channel, and paid support.
Blender is maintained by the Blender Foundation in the Netherlands. The foundation has created movies and animations as a way to evolve the feature set of their software. Check out their Open Projects page to see these projects. Their open movies are provided along with the movie data files and tutorials.
Finally, Blender includes at least one add-on to enable 3D printing of objects created with their software.
Another 3D software tool to look at is TinkerCAD. Like Build with Chrome, TinkerCAD is web browser based. You create an account and, once logged in, the software leads you on a simple tutorial. TinkerCAD is designed to help people create 3D objects they can print with a 3D printer. While the software is part of Adobe, it appears to be free to use.
The interface is slightly more complicated than Build with Chrome, the software that lets you build with LEGOs. It might work best for kids graduating from LEGOs to SketchUp. But the software lacks the power of SketchUP and Blender. It is still fun and fairly easy to click to figure out.
Build with Chrome