3D Technology Yields New Insights in Geology Course

Faculty members are creatively using 3D and other advanced tools in the IQ Center, which opened in fall 2013 and features advanced technologies for enhancing teaching and learning. Here is a faculty and student perspective on how 3D tools helped enhance understanding of challenging concepts in Geology 211, Earth Materials I: Rocks and Minerals.

Paul Low, Assistant Department of Geology:

In the variety of courses that I teach, one of the most (if not the most) challenging things that I have encountered is how to help students understand the internal structures and symmetry in minerals at the sub-microscopic scale (crystallography). After attending a Fall Academy (2013) session taught by IQ Center Coordinator Dave Pfaff that introduced a 3D animation program called Cinema 4-D, I decided to use the program as tool for teaching students about mineral structures. There are other programs that are specifically designed to build crystal structures but what I liked about C4D was that 1) the interface seemed fairly intuitive, 2) the “rules” that it uses for constructing polygons of specific shapes and sizes are the same (allowing for scale) as the ones that we use in describing bonded materials in scientific literature. For instance, if we know that the bond length for a tetrahedrally coordinated Si ion is n units, then we can tell C4D to construct a tetrahedron with a radius of n units. 3) the results could be projected in virtual 3D using the IQ Center Stereo 3D lab, and 4) the results could be exported, in color, to the IQ center 3D printer. Also, the students would have to construct every component (polygon) from scratch.

In order to create a mineral structure from a catalog of shapes (spheres for ions, cylinders for bonds, and triangles, tetrahedrons, octahedrons, or cubes for coordination polyhedra), the students would need to find and use the correct relative sizes for each component and then would need to orient each of these components correctly relative to one another in x,y,z space. All minerals are composed of symmetrically repeating arrangements of their constituent ions and the students had to discover these repeating units then construct, copy, and translate them in order to build the structures for their respective minerals.

The main “product” of the assignment was all of the thinking that the students had to do in order to construct their mineral, particularly in the application of all of the “rules” that they needed to follow (or violate) in order to complete their construction. We also get a highly functional mechanism for communicating the aspects of crystal structure both in the virtual world (3D Stereo) and the real world (3D printer).

Phil Kong, Class of 2015

In Professor Low’s Earth Materials I class, I chose to build the crystal structure of periclase (MgO).  Even though in class I learned that periclase is octahedrally coordinated to oxygen in a cubic crystal structure, it was difficult to visualize how the mineral structure repeated.  Our class met at the Computer Visualization Lab at the IQ center to use Cinema 4D to draw up our own structures.  We first started out creating spheres for each element and small cylinder rods for the bonds.  Taking into account for the bond length between magnesium and oxygen, I created the bonds between each element and drew out the rest of my structure.  Using Cinema 4D was very similar to using Photoshop; the only difference was that there was an extra dimension to consider.  Navigating through cinema 4D was not challenging at all; it was very user-friendly.  However, some of my classmates who did not have a background in Photoshop and/or built a much more complex mineral structure required and received more assistance from Professor Low.

c4d pics

The periclase crystal, as created in Cinema 4D software

Over the next few weeks, we finished creating our mineral.  Upon completion, Professor Low collaborated with David Plaff, IQ Center coordinator, and printed out each student’s mineral structure.  My product was about 125 cubic centimeters, and when it first came out of the 3D printer, it was covered with white powder that I had to brush off.  Using the de-powdering machine, I airbrushed off all of the powder and my mineral structure was ready to be dipped in super glue to harden the final material.



Phil Kong’s periclase crystal, as rendered by the 3-D printer in the IQ Center

In the following week, our class met at the Stereo 3D lab to present our minerals to the class.  Using the 3D projector, each student described the properties of his or her mineral created through Cinema 4D.  As I described my mineral, my classmates were able to wearing 3D glasses to visualize aspects of periclase that I was pointing out in my presentation, such as the octahedral crystal structure (the diamond-shaped yellow structure).

Students in Geology 211 wear special glasses to view 3-D displays of crystals created using special software

Students in Geology 211 wear special glasses to view 3-D displays of crystals created using special software

Having the opportunity to utilize the IQ center and using state-of-the-art equipment to visualize a mineral’s crystal structure was very enriching.  Our crystal will be on display at the IQ center, and making 3D models of our minerals helped us understand the concepts of crystallography.


Faculty and staff: hear more from Paul Low and  other faculty members during a Winter Academy workshop Monday, Dec. 9 on “Teaching in 3D.” Go to http://go.wlu.edu/winteracademy for details and to sign up.

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