Book Review - 3DVinci's ModelMetricks SketchUp Projects for Kids Books

SketchUp Projects for Kids (Basic Series - 4 book set) ($49.95)

SketchUp Projects for Kids (Intermediate Series - 3 book set) ($44.95)

SketchUp Projects for Kids (Advanced Series - 4 book set) ($54.95)

Available from 3DVinci.net

Google Sketchup is a playful, fun to use and powerful 3D drawing program. In 2006, Google released a free version of SketchUp for Macintosh and Windows computers. The free version is very feature rich. A $500 version of Google SketchUp can also be purchased.

Although designed for architects, SketchUp is so easy to use that first graders use it. I have little talent at computer graphics, but within two months of using SketchUp I had designed my own 3D art museum for a local artist in the town where I work. To help others learn more about SketchUp, I created some screencasts that explained how I built that art museum. (http://infinitemuseum.blogspot.com)

In the summer of 2006 I tried using Google SketchUp with some middle school students enrolled in a digital storytelling class I was teaching. The kids loved SketchUp, but I didn't have enough experience with the program to guide them in their learning. I yearned for a series of guidebooks that could show me how to use SketchUp with kids.

Bonnie Roskes is a professional engineer who lives in Washington DC, the same metropolitan area that I live in. She loves Google SketchUp and had already written the definitive guidebook for adults who use SketchUp. Imagine my delight to discover she recently finished writing 11 short guidebooks on using SketchUp with kids. These books are exactly what I was looking for – with step by step instructions and lots of clear illustrations.

Her books are divided up into different series: Basics, Intermediate, and Advanced. Roskes has a knack for knowing the kinds of 3D projects that kids would enjoy working on. My favorite of her books is the one titled Kids as Architects. Her use of color in architectural design is exactly the kind of thing that can grab a kid's interest.

One person who assisted in writing these books is Bonnie Roskes' 8-year-old daughter who contributed ideas for the books. It's not often that a book author gets assistance from their own child. It's revealing of Roskes' mindset that she is completely open to hearing her own daughter's ideas for these books. After all, these books are guidebooks to using SketchUp with kids, so kids ought to have some worthy ideas on this topic. It would be presumptuous to think otherwise.

To give you a better idea of how these books look, here is a Google Picasa album showing sample pages from the books. You can also download this PDF archive which contains higher resolution JPEG's of these pages.

Children who construct the 3D drawings in these books will gain stronger and stronger skill with the basic tools of Google SketchUp. Each chapter in these books explains the skills gained in creating the 3D drawing explained in the chapter.

Roskes' creativity flows so strongly that she even wrote an entire book on how to use Google SketchUp for creating jigsaw puzzles and various kinds of word puzzles, including a spinning word puzzle. The software programmers who created SketchUp could never have imagined this unanticipated use for their software, but Roskes did. As someone who has used SketchUp quite a bit, I was highly amused to read the Crazy Shapes book. I'm a creative sort, but not in a million years would I have come up with the ideas in this book.

In writing this book review it occurred to me that words alone could not convey the vibrancy of the thinking in these books. So I suggested to Bonnie Roskes that she create a series of short screencasts, narrated video explanations, to accompany the books. Never having done that before, she nevertheless plunged in and created this series of screencasts using CamStudio, a free screencasting program for Windows. To make these screencasts more easily viewable and distributable, I compressed the screencasts using Camtasia Studio, a widely popular commercial screencasting program for Windows. These screencasts do a far better job of explaining the contents of these books than any book review ever could. The screencasts are also freely distributable, so if you find them interesting or useful you can download them all and distribute them via USB Flash drives, CD-ROM's, etc. (YouTube versions of the screencasts can be viewed here.)

ModelMetricks Kids as Architects

(Alternate link on YouTube)

ModelMetricks 3D Text

(Alternate link on YouTube)

ModelMetricks Crazy Shapes

(Alternate link on YouTube)

ModelMetricks Strange Buildings

(Alternate link on YouTube)

ModelMetricks Painting With Pictures

(Alternate link on YouTube)

ModelMetricks Puzzles

(Alternate link on YouTube)

ModelMetricks Illusions

(Alternate link on YouTube)

(Downloadable archive of all of the above screencasts. 98.5 MB.)

(Alternate download link.)  

The screencasts are hosted on the Internet Archive, which provides free web hosting for these and other media files. Created ten years ago, the Internet Archive is one of the boldest efforts to use the Internet for public good. Brewster Kahle, the creator of the Internet Archive, anticipated public needs in a way that no other technologist has.

In any event, if you sample some of the above videos, you'll be in a good position to get the best usage from Bonnie Roskes' books. I found that my existing familiarity with SketchUp made the books more meaningful.

This past summer I ran an informal computer club with some 3rd and 4th graders. One 4th grade boy was simply fascinated with Google SketchUp. Without much guidance or direction on my part, he built an interesting building in less than 15 minutes. I loved it when he asked me if I wanted to see a tour of his building. With great pride he explained to me the various parts of the building and why he designed them in the way he did. Whether this child will grow up to an architect or not, I don't know. I do know that he takes great joy in designing 3D structures – and he thinks of himself as a designer.

With the help of Bonnie Roskes' books, I can help him develop stronger skills at using the different tools in SketchUp. SketchUp is taught at the middle school in the town where I work, so with each passing year the students learning SketchUp at school will come with a stronger familiarity to the program. And so the teacher there will be able to give them increasingly challenging design assignments.

I like that. Making school more meaningful and engaging brings great rewards to everyone in society. Yes, we need to continue teaching the three R's – reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. But we need to add in a big D – design to that mix. Google SketchUp is one of the best ways of bringing design to children. (To read more about the importance of boosting design in our lives, check out Daniel Pink's excellent book A Whole New Mind: How Right Brainers Will Rule the Future.)

Who Are These Books Best For?

The activities in these books would work best for middle school students, although some gifted elementary school students would also find the activities interesting. High school students wanting to learn SketchUp would also benefit from the books, although teens tend to veer away from books written "for kids." I would recommend these books in particular to families involved in FIRST robotics and FIRST Lego League and Junior FIRST Lego League. It would be entirely appropriate for FIRST to start expecting and awarding achievement certificates to teams who excel at 3D design. In this educator's mind, FIRST has shown us the future of education – which is learning by doing.

Here is a final thought. In the summer of 2006, when I was yearning for a guidebook to use SketchUp with kids, I would have gladly pre-paid for Bonnie Roskes to write these books. If Google intends to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible, it needs to connect people yearning to purchase instructional materials with those with the talent and interest to produce them. We can move towards a "pull" model of publishing, where people's best ideas are pulled out of their head. That way authors don't have to work for a year or two writing books, waiting for compensation to come at the end of their efforts. If a writer has the talent and ability to write, compensation can start happening on the very day they launch into a new writing project. We need to invent those new writing and publishing models. In this new digital age, we need to design a new society better suited to everyone's needs.

SketchUp is the starting point for getting to where we want to be.

Different Versions of the Books

This review would not be complete without explaining about the different versions of these guidebooks. There are versions of the books for Macintosh and versions for Windows. (The menus for SketchUp are slightly different for the Macintosh and Windows versions of the program.) There are also versions of the book for Sketchup 6 and the newly announced SketchUp 7. If you're not sure which to buy, choosing Sketchup 7 versions of the books is a smart choice. SketchUp 6 was very popular last year, but is no longer available from Google.

Other places to learn SketchUp include the large number of SketchUp videos on YouTube. Of particular note are the videos by Aidan Chopra, author of the book Google SketchUp for Dummies. The SketchUp screencasts and training DVD's by Mike Tadros and Alex Oliver are also exceedingly well done.

Having said all of the above, it dawns on me that Linux enthusiasts will feel left out of this banquet, for sure. It stands to reason that a Linux version of SketchUp will be released sometime, too.


Phil Shapiro


The author works as the public geek at the Takoma Park Maryland Library, in the Washington DC-area. He is also an adjunct professor of education and a technology commentator. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com

SketchUp fans in the DC-area might be interested in joining the newly formed SketchUp Fans DC email list. http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/sketchupfansdc If you're skilled at SketchUp and you live outside the Washington DC-area, you are welcome to join this list, too.

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