Incorporating Google SketchUp: Thoughts and Experiences?

We would like to learn about further perspectives and experiences with Google SketchUp (and/or other 3D applications) in various courses, curricula, or professional work. We started to integrate SketchUp two years ago here at NAU, after my colleague Dawn Hawley discovered that it would be an effective approach for our planning students to construct 3D renderings of site plans and traditional neighborhood developments (TND). I was hooked immediately.

Last fall I integrated the tool for the first time in my GSP 303 Community Design and Preservation course (formerly PL 303), a prerequisite to the capstone. As a “first run,” I asked the students to complete a simple tutorial (developed by a previous student) on their own. This provided them with minimal skills necessary to create a simple block diagram of their “Activity Center Redesign” term project (What I refer to as “Extreme Makeover: Flagstaff Edition” on the student instructions). Part of the tutorial included the incorporation of a Google Earth image of NAU’s South Campus, asking them to “construct” a new building shell on an existing parking lot. In the past, students could use computer or drawing tools of their choice for this class, but there was no one “standard” tool that we required. Naturally, I had to learn it, too. Perhaps as expected, some students excelled with SketchUp more than others by the end of the semester, and so we are creating (with student help) another, more elaborate tutorial for next year’s class. I will also spend one day in the computer lab with the students so that I can show them all the basics at once – lesson learned! 

I was still curious about how respectable SketchUp had become in the design professions, and if it would be taken seriously by potential employers and other institutions of higher ed. This was a main question of mine as I headed to the GeoDesign Summit this past January. In short, I was pleasantly surprised. Numerous, well-respected firms spoke about using SketchUp as a normal part of their work, with the consistent story of creating 3D designs and then plugging them back into GIS. One faculty member at the curriculum “Idea Lab” claimed that it was a “lot of fun” for her students – something I confirmed as well, after getting past the students’ learning curve.

Dawn has since required SketchUp renderings for her senior studio capstone course (GSP 405C), now recently completed. I intend to increase student competence in my GSP 303 class next fall so that students can later incorporate it more seamlessly into their GIS and studio capstones. At this point we are settling on SketchUp as our 3D tool of choice, though there are notable others out there as well. I believe that as long as students are able to navigate and incorporate one such tool, they should have an easier time learning others in the future (i.e. setting them up for “life-long learning”). Does that assumption seem reasonable? After I learned Aldus Freehand some two decades ago, for instance, it was not a big jump later to move into Adobe Illustrator and others.

As potential prompts for discussion, then, I wonder what employers and others think about incorporating SketchUp into a GeoDesign-oriented curriculum, as we would welcome other perspectives. Is this type of tool (and/or this one specifically) the type of skill that various employers find attractive for their new recruits? For what reasons (either way)? What other 3D software/packages are  you relying on for your own courses or professional work, and why?

Another issue of mine (can’t resist – sorry)  involves to what extent we allow students to “drop in” example buildings/designs from their version of “collective commons” on SketchUp? That’s what I’m allowing now, as students can search for “representative” architectural styles and building types to “drop in” to their diagrams. Should we require that students create their own buildings and facades from scratch, and if so, for what specific purposes? We look forward to your comments with thoughts and/or experiences regarding any of these questions above, if anyone would like to share them here.

– Tom Paradis

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