Students Become Animated, Drawing Connections to Lessons

from Educators' eZine

About 25 fifth-grade students in Virginia watched pulsing computer screens closely as atoms became animated with bulbous electrons and neutrons swirling around them. The students were virtually unaware a software program was helping them more clearly understand the periodic table of elements.

The fifth-graders in the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools used Serif's DrawPlus X2, a vector drawing software solution with graphic tools powerful enough to create compelling illustrations, but easy enough for the students to use, as part of the science lesson. (A collection of their work is gathered in a presentation available for viewing.) The software made the elements burst into life for the students, said teacher Robb Ponton.

"The kids were engaged and learned more," said Ponton. "It was easy for them to draw an atom and animate it. Once the teachers saw the students' reaction—their smiles, their excited chatter, their fingers pointing at computer monitors—they were hooked. The students' projects impressed their parents, and the kids were really proud of their work."

As an instructional technology resource teacher in the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, Ponton helps teachers incorporate technology into their instructional practices and often leads lessons in the classroom. Ponton, an educator who has taught all over the world over the past three decades, said kids retain more information from any given lesson when they are engaged in their own learning experience.

The district enrolls approximately 10,478 students, from pre-kindergarten to grade 12, from the city of Williamsburg and the county of James City, Virginia. Though located in America's oldest county (James City County was founded in 1607 and Williamsburg was founded in 1699), the school district is on the forefront of technology integration as Virginia is the only state to mandate the hiring of instructional technology resource teachers. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine in September 2008 gave the district an award recognizing its innovative use of technology to provide improved service.

The WJCC schools use products such as Serif's DrawPlus, Interwrite tablets, Quizdom interactive learning systems, SAFARI Montage and VBrick networked video systems for educational programming, ceiling projectors, speakers and a host of other items for total technology immersion.

Ponton says computer drawing and animation can help drive home concepts that once fell flat because they were too abstract or lackluster. Bridging art and technology education, and other core subject areas, it lends itself to both collaborative and individual projects.

"Animation is an ideal medium not only to express surreal action, explore fantasy and make imaginative links, but also to elucidate concepts and processes," said Ponton. "We're not asking teachers to throw out their lesson plans, but to enhance them."

In one lesson with elementary-aged students, Ponton begins by showing students a drawing from a professional artist. He then used a computer animation program to show them how the image can be broken down into its basic shapes. He next has the students put the shapes back together. Ponton also gives them a picture of an animal and starts them off by showing them how to begin creating the animal's face. The students began to see how they could "construct" or "build" their own dog or cat, he said.

"When students see that the artwork really is mostly made out of common shapes they are amazed. They can learn about dimensions and proportions. They catch on quickly," said Ponton. "Computer graphics programs are particularly good for kids who can't draw well themselves. It keeps them from getting disinterested."

Currently, all 13 schools in the Williamsburg-James City County district are using vector drawing software across multiple disciplines, including:

  • All fourth-grade classes created animated images of the amendments to the Constitution. Teachers say the amendments are often a hard concept for fourth-graders to grasp, but adding the visual element to the lesson enabled students to bring to life particular amendments. One class's work can be viewed online.
  • Seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish classes who had trouble with verbs used computers to set in motion words including "dance," "surf," "skate" and "sing." The visual effects helped the students to not just translate, but to truly understand the meaning of the Spanish words. Ponton collected the students' responses to the question, "What do I like to do?" in a presentation which can be viewed online.
  • A high-school chemistry class used DrawPlus to animate compounds, bringing to life the chemical equation and concepts behind reactions. As part of an illustration of laughing gas one student sent the words "nitrous oxide" bouncing around the computer screen and set the words "ha, ha" popping up against a blue background. A sampling of the projects are available for viewing.

One project planned for this school year will see fourth-graders creating digital, animated postcards of the five regions of Virginia as part of their social studies lessons.

"Using animations to illustrate concepts and objects, the students are so much more creative," said Ponton. "Clip art basically teaches nothing. Students learn more when they draw something for themselves. The software gives teachers a crucial 'hands-on' component to their lessons."

Students who speak English as a second language, including a student from Peru and one from China, have created animated advertisements for school plays using animation software. The students gained a sense of pride in themselves for a job well-done and a sense of camaraderie with their classmates because they could communicate through their illustrations, Ponton said.

The software also works well with some of the district's special education population. Children whose physical or mental disabilities might have prevented them from creating images are now tapping into their ideas more readily because they can more easily express themselves with technology.

"We can see the improvement computer drawing and animation has made in our classrooms in terms of how interested and active the students are during their lessons. It has helped them think more deeply about their subjects, making learning more engaging, and therefore more meaningful. The lessons will stay with them longer because of this technology."

Colin Hussey serves as education business manager for Serif Ltd. In his 12 years with the organization he has built the company's market-leading reputation by responding directly to the needs of educators facing the challenges of the creative curriculum with products and other offerings tailored specifically to the needs of schools.