Introduction: How to Teach History Using Tinkercad

About: Tinkercad is a free and easy, browser-based 3D design and modeling tool for all. Tinkercad allows anyone to imagine anything and then design it in minutes.

More and more, teachers are harnessing technology in order to engage students in the exploration of virtual environments - and even video games - in order to bring history to life. But what if this model were flipped, or extended? And students were also creating virtual environments or artifacts themselves. Artifacts that could actually take shape in the physical world!

Or, what if students were using historical models as inspiration for new designs and innovation - making history not only alive, but also fresh and relevant?

All of this and more is possible through the integration of Tinkercad 3D design software into the classroom. This Instructable will guide you through ideas and resources that will help you make it happen!

Don’t forget that as a teacher, you will be growing too. By integrating 3D design into your teaching, you will also be expanding your capacity to:

  • Make learning new concepts or vocabulary more memorable and accessible
  • Facilitate interdisciplinary connections and collaboration
  • Teach students to think like historians through inquiry and critical analysis
  • Provide another means for students to express their knowledge
  • Learn a new skill

Furthermore, the more you learn about the design thinking process that permeates the maker movement, the more you will begin to see subtle correlations between 3D design and historical thinking, such as an emphasis on building empathy through inquiry and research.

Step 1: Know Your Tools

Before you attempt to bring this exciting tool into your classroom, you'll want to spend some time exploring it yourself first. The best place to start is by learning the basic moves. Each of these interactive lessons takes only a few minutes to complete and, by the time you finish all of them, you'll have learned to use all the key features in the program. It's really that simple - people are always surprised by how easy it is to get started with Tinkercad.

Step 2: Review Technology Requirements for Your Classroom

Most classes that incorporate 3D design will require a few basic materials.

The chart above will help you identify the necessary resources you will need. You can learn more about how educators and students can access Tinkercad and Fusion 360 for free here. Tinkercad is a very easy to learn, COPPA compliant, and browser-based application - which makes it ideal for teaching students in K12. Fusion 360 is a more advanced professional tool, requires downloading, and is a great next step once you’ve mastered Tinkercad.

In addition to these resources, access to a 3D printer is certainly helpful, but not required. 3D printing is a great way to create quick, inexpensive, limited-run prototypes or one-of-a-kind objects and offers you and your students many tangible benefits, including:

  • Increased student engagement as they see their ideas brought to reality
  • The opportunity for students to learn how things work and test printed designs
  • Physical representations of concepts

There are endless options when it comes to selecting a 3D printer. A good reference guide to help you do so is Tom's Guide to the Best 3D Printers.

Still not sure about 3D printing? Read this: 7 Benefits of Using 3D Printing Technology in Education.

Step 3: Start Thinking in 3D

If you are here reading this, you are probably already thinking that 3D design might be a really powerful way for students to express their understanding. However, you don't need to reinvent the wheel - leave that to your students! Here are some thoughts to get your gears in motion:

Do what you already do... just make it better.

Rather than creating new projects, rethink ones you already assign and offer your students the chance to show what they know through 3D design. For example, check out this story about a girl who added a cool twist on the California Mission Project all 4th graders in the state are required to complete.

Move gradually from 2D to 3D.

If your students are struggling to make the transition to 3D, you might have your students sketch out their ideas in multiple perspectives on paper first. It is even possible for students to import their hand-drawn images or vectors they found online into Tinkercad. Here's how.

Another cool trick for making the leap from 2D to 3D is trying out Tinkercad's Scribble feature.

Explore online 3D galleries.

The Tinkercad gallery is a great place to start.

Another awesome website to check out is Thingiverse, which is dedicated to the sharing of user-created digital design files. This collection is easily searchable, and many of its files can be downloaded and then uploaded into Tinkercad for modification without any licensing issues. This is a great resource for Tinkercad beginners to use for analyzing designs, hacking together objects, or building upon creations that others have developed.

Watch videos made by Tinkercad enthusiasts.

Plenty of classroom teachers who use Tinkercad publish screencasts for their students online. For example, this video is a great tutorial made by an art teacher that illustrates how he guides students through the process of making a realistic-looking Japanese mythical beast by fusing together pre-existing models from Thingiverse in Tinkercad. This process can also be applied to several other ideas referenced in this Instructable.

In watching the video, you will notice the teacher uses SculptGL, a free digital sculpting web app, to manipulate the design he creates in Tinkercad. As you can see, students can easily import their design into this program to smooth out edges or add additional effects and then export them out and back into Tinkercad again for adding finishing touches like a base.

However, if this sounds arduous to you, maybe you are ready to graduate to Fusion 360, which enables users to design and sculpt in the same place - making even more professional looking products. But in the meantime, as the video demonstrates, this is a pretty convenient workaround for those of you who are just getting started with Tinkercad.

Step 4: Select Your First Project

As you begin to explore projects, consider the following:

  • What student learning problem are you trying to solve?
  • Do you have a professional learning goal you are developing with your team?
  • Is there a district-mandated unit that needs some spiffing up?
  • How about a hot topic you know the kids will love?

When you are making the shift to introduce 3D design, don’t think you need to cast aside standards-driven curriculum topics for the duration of the project.

Not only is 3D design a great entry point to a variety of STEAM fields, but the skills students develop can relate to historical and social studies literacy proficencies, including the ability to integrate visual information with other information in print and digital texts.

Now, comes the really, really fun part… designing your project! The following project ideas are not prescriptions, but instead meant to serve as an inspiration board to help you imagine the possibilities.

They are organized by instructional rationale rather than by standards or grade level, because history and social studies curriculum requirements vary by state, and also because most of the projects could be adapted to be appropriate for students of any age through the integration of developmentally appropriate reading or writing tasks.

Step 5: Make Learning New Concepts or Vocabulary More Memorable and Accessible

Ask anyone who says they hated history class what they didn't like about it, and they most would likely explain it was all the memorizing or the lecturing. Fortunately, advances in technology are making the delivery of history and social studies content more engaging (and more fun for teachers too!). For example, many museums, such as the Smithsonian and the British Museum, now offer 3D collections that allow online visitors to explore, and, in some cases, even print reproductions of artistic and anthropological treasures.

Learning and remembering new vocabulary and historical facts is further accelerated when students are able to touch and feel new concepts in the physical world. The following project ideas will help your students not only view history through a fresh perspective, but also make it feel more personally relevant.

Create tablets and keychains inscribed with ancient scripts

You can use Tinkercad to create simple tablets or keychains that can be personalized with phrases or names written in ancient scripts, such as hieroglyphic or cuneiform. This video made by a classroom teacher shows you all the steps.

One way you might extend this activity into a writing or discussion lesson is to have students print the same word in different ancient scripts and then have them compare and contrast the ways that various ancient peoples used symbols to communicate about their lives. Maybe your students students will recognize a shift that resulted from a technological or cultural innovation - such as the wider popularity of papyrus as a writing medium.

Younger students could simply notice and make inferences about the similarities and differences they see. More advanced students might tie the activity to the exploration of an Essential Question such as: To what extent does language influence how we think and how we perceive the social and physical worlds?

Either way, keep in mind that students young and old equally enjoy being able to take away something physically tangible from a lesson - especially as the result of such a memorable learning experience!

Make physical maps

Sometimes the discussion of how geography affects culture falls flat. Maybe this is because the maps we often use with students are two-dimensional. For many students, it’s difficult to conceptualize how physical features like mountains and oceans can influence the way cultures take shape and evolve. One way to solve this problem, or at least test out a solution, is to engage students in creating their own topographical maps.

One resource that makes this process simple for beginners is 3D Print a Topographic Map. As you can see in the image above, you can also keep it simple by having students drop basic shapes into a map to show their knowledge of geographic features such as mountain ranges, or to use Tinkercad's built-in ruler to visualize scale.

Watch as your students' concept of geography transforms as they take on a new role in shaping it. They might even demonstrate empathy and a new appreciation for the inhabitants of this environment by designing adaptations (such as tools) or modifications (similar to terraforming) that would make life easier.

Make 3D Printed Topo Maps of Anywhere describes a far more complex mapping process that applies the use of publicly available data in amazing ways. This could be a great project to pair with a math teacher in executing.

Another way of thinking of this idea through a social sciences lens is to have students create a map that is overlaid with a 3D representation of data, such as population statistics. For more info, check out: How to Design 3D Population Maps Using Tinkercad.

Step 6: Facilitate Interdisciplinary Connections and Collaboration

One learning theory that supports going cross-curricular with your project is that students' strengths in one subject area will support new learning in another. This way of thinking also opens doors for new and meaningful collaboration between teachers, while at the same time breaking down silos that sometimes get in the way of authentic learning. Teaching 3D design is a natural way of facilitating this.

Build something new - or renovate something old

The study of architecture is a proven gateway into powerful project-based learning in math. From basic geometry to advanced trigonometry, there are (literally) so many angles to explore. Conveniently, architecture is also a great access point for getting students interested in history of all different time periods via the study of both decorative or structural elements. Many Tinkercad aficionados have developed mind-blowing techniques for creating sophisticated structures through a combination of close analysis of historic design methods and precise mathematical thinking.

The video of the creation of a Parthenon reproduction at the beginning of this step offers a glimpse into one master Tinkerer’s craft. You might have students use academic language from both history and geometry to describe how it was built, and then challenge them to apply what they learned in building their own structure. Ask the questions: How do you see the structure's function reflected in its design elements? How might that function be reflected differently in a building today and why?

If you don’t have time for students to build something of their own from scratch, your students can make use of the many examples of ancient ruins, historic structures, or decorative ornaments that can be found in the Tinkercad and Thingiverse galleries. You could then have your students upload one of their choosing and repair or update it. Another approach to this project could be to provide students with a written or audio description of a historic structure or artifact that they have never learned about and assign them to recreate it visually. This would be a great activity for trying out Tinkercad’s collaboration feature.

Make a mask

Masks have been an integral part of cultural and artistic expression since the dawn of time. You could use a very similar process as described in the video from Step 3 to engage your students in mask-making. There are many examples of plain (or even hockey) mask designs in Tinkercad and Thingiverse for modifying and elaborating on by your students. The making of Greek or African masks are both assignments that draw clear correlations to the recommended history curriculum in most states, but how about teaming up with your students’ English teacher on the project? Themes related to the exploration of identity are quite common in literature selections for students, especially for early adolescents.

Wouldn’t it be cool for your students to pair their historical mask with something more modern and personal - an expression of their thinking about identity that could even be complemented with the writing of a poem or vignette? The world of theatre provides another avenue to pitch your interdisciplinary mask-making project. Collaborating with your students’ theatre teacher could also lead to more ambitious projects like set design if you are able to ramp up your 3D design skills together.

Step 7: Teach Students to Think Like Historians Through Inquiry and Critical Analysis

The introduction of the Common Core standards presented a shift for the way many subjects are taught in schools, with history and social studies being no exception. Today’s students are not only expected to know historical facts, but also to think like historians. The hands-on nature of 3D design is a perfect fit for supporting your students’ new role as “history detective.”

Investigate historic weapon engineering

While students are immersed in the study of life in Ancient China or in the Middle Ages, you might introduce siege machines like catapults. You could print out a variety of designs for students to analyze and test out, and then launch a design challenge for creating the best one. You might also ask students to contextualize their design within a timeline of weapons technology and use what they have learned to imagine a non-violent application for what they have created.

On that note, check out this video about Jordan Reeves, a young inventor who used Tinkercad to design a glitter cannon for her prosthetic arm!

Analyze and emulate a historical style

Do your students want a mobile phone case with swag (like an actual swag)? If students are learning about a particular society or time period in history, challenge them to design a modern product that is influenced by the artistic or architectural styles of the era. For example, design a fidget spinner in the style of Art Nouveau!

Then have students imagine that their product will be sold in a museum gift shop, and assign them to write a product description that highlights its historic details using academic language.

Construct a monument or memorial

In order to build your students' civic understandings, you might ask them to examine local and national memorials and reasons why individuals and groups sought to commemorate certain events over others. How about having them design new memorials or monuments based on what they view as under-recognized people, places, and events - in their neighborhoods, or in the larger historical context?

After they finish, students could write or present a proposal convincing the city, the state, or local historical society to approve of its placement. Students could also create a historical marker to go along with their design, complete with facts, quotations, and a symbol. This is a great site to explore historical markers across the country.

Step 8: Make Learning a Game!

All of these skills we have discussed could also be taught within the context of a fun project in which students design their own board games based on historical, geographical, or civics concepts. Play is an active way of learning, and can even be a motivator to absorb rigorous content. Check out this great article about how one teacher was able to convince her administrator about the value of this way of learning. Way to go!

And if you're interested in contributing to an ongoing project that combines board game design in Tinkercad with social justice issues like accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities, take a look at the Brookwood School's #WorldPiece Project.

Step 9: Assign the Project - and Watch Where Students Take It!

Please check out our "Official Guide to Tinkercad Classrooms" on the Tinkercad blog to learn about all the great FREE features we offer for assigning and monitoring class work. Classrooms makes it easy to get students signed up and making!

As students are working on the project, it would be awesome for you to document it and share your insights with others who might be curious or struggling to get started. You could even write an Instructable to tell your story. Or better yet, you could assign your students to write one that explains theirs!

Step 10: Share Your Students’ Work

Now that your students have made some amazing designs, they will definitely want to share them, and there are many benefits to sharing their work:

  • creates learner agency
  • helps learners revisit their work, integrate feedback, and improve future work
  • provides an opportunity to have their work affirmed and recognized
  • it's just fun to show off!

If you have access to a 3D printer, this is obviously a great way for displaying the final products - especially if you are able to create a temporary physical gallery to allow students to show off their hard work and also celebrate the work of their classmates. Here are a few pointers on sharing...

Check in with students throughout the process... not just at the end.

You know that it always best practice to have students share their drafts with you and their peers for review and critique while they are working on projects. Teaching 3D design is no different, and Tinkercad helps facilitate this through allowing your students to share their drafts with you and with each other.

Don't worry if you don't have a 3D printer.

So what if you don’t have a 3D printer? Sharing to design galleries on Tinkercad and Thingiverse will enable students to instantly become part of a vibrant community of creators and makers. As part of publishing in this way, you could also assign students to write a complete description of their process and inspiration in the summary section.

One system you might use to collect and share work - if you are going this route - is to create an online form for students to fill out with their names, a link to their project's url, and whatever other information you want to collect. You could even share a link to the corresponding spreadsheet with your students, so that they may easily view their classmates’ final products and applaud their designs in the comments section.

Another way for students to share their designs is through taking screenshots in multiple angles, which could then be inserted into the word document that contains their written commentary. If you have access to a traditional printer, you could also print these documents on paper for display.

Step 11: See What Students Learned

So your class is having a blast with 3D design - great! Now how do you know they're actually learning? Assessment is always a difficult part of project-based and maker-centered education. Although not specifically history/social studies-focused, one fantastic example of a maker-centered rubric we've seen is this Sample Rubric by Lisa Yokana.

Step 12: Get Connected With the Larger Community of Makers!

Well, you've already mastered part of this step... Keep exploring Instructables for more cool ideas and inspiration!

Be sure to connect with kindred spirits who can provide both technical support and encouragement - either at your school or in the wider community of makers. The blog post Community Resources in Your Backyard to Start Making is a great place to begin building your network.

Step 13: Share Your Feedback With Us

We'd love to hear what you think about this project. We develop our classroom Instructables based on input from teachers like you, so it's super important for us to continue to iterate and improve. If you'd be so kind as to post a few comments below, we'd appreciate it.

Have fun and keep an eye out for more projects coming soon!