Teaching CAD with Sketchup & Google Classroom

Like many design teachers this year I have had to figure out how to teach CAD skills to my students using free online tools. After much dithering I finally committed to using OnShape Free with our IGCSE and IB students and Sketchup for Schools with out Year 7 to 9 students. OnShape was a great choice which I might blog about at another time, and despite some misgivings about the functionality of the online version of Sketchup it ended up facilitating an awesome workflow that I thought was worth sharing.

Setup

It should be noted that Sketchup for Schools (edu.sketchup.com) is different from the free online version of Sketchup (app.sketchup.com). In particular, the edu version includes the following extended functionality:

  1. Students can sign into sketchup using their school google account and they can save their .skp sketchup files to Drive (more on how useful this is later).
  2. Students can export their finished models as 3d and 2d dxf files (as well as many other file types). It took a bit of doing to fine tune this process, but once we figured it out we were able to import student dxf files to 2D Design in order to laser cut them.
  3. Students have access to the Solid Inspector tool which I m hoping will help improve success rates when 3d printing student files (at the moment we are focused on exporting to the laser cutter).

Setup included 2 steps.

  1. Register for Sketchup for Schools. This was a pretty painless process and it didn’t take long. This is necessary so that students can log in with their school email/google account.
  2. Enable Sketchup for Schools for your domain. In my case this involved sending the instructions to our awesome tech department (who administer our Google Workspace domain) and waiting for them to set it up before proceeding.

Workflow

The best thing about Sketchup for Schools is that it saves student files to Drive, which means you can treat sketchup files a lot like Google Docs and manage the entire workflow using Google Classroom. In my case I assigned Sketchup tutorials (more on these later) to my students as different assignments in Classroom.

When they finished a project they would just attach the .skp Sketchup file to the assignment. Using the preview window for each assignment it was easy for me to see how each student was getting along. It took me a bit of time to get my students to realise they could just click the Add from Drive button on a Classroom assignment and then search for .skp files to find the one they wanted to attach, but they got the hang of it pretty quickly.

UPDATE: Even better, it turns out that when creating an assignment you can attach a Sketchup file template and use the Make a Copy for Each Student feature to automatically assign a separate .skp file to each student. I found this a particularly good way to keep track of student progress during virtual learning as I wasn’t waiting for them to add the file before I could see it.

Having all the sketchup files attached to a Google Classroom assignment made it very easy for me to help my students and give them feedback. If a student needed help we would go into a Zoom breakout room together and I would access their file via the Google Classroom grading/feedback window, which happily provides the option to open their file in Sketchup for Schools 🙂 Just like a Google Doc this is the same file they are working on so if they need any direct assistance I could help, although more often I would make a copy of their file and via screenshare give a mini lesson on what they needed to know.

Exporting to Laser Cutter

We ran 2 projects this year that required exporting files from Sketchup to our laser cutter. The first was a cardboard chair project and the second a pewter pendant project. Honestly, without the ability to check in on student work via Classroom in order to support them virtually I am not sure how we would have managed. As it was we were quite pleased with the skills the students gained and their final products.

Through trial and error we discovered a number of tricks about exporting a 2d file from Sketchup. In particular, in order to make sure that the orientation is correct students MUST:

  1. Open the Scenes side menu
  2. Click the Top view icon
  3. Click the Parallel projection icon

If not the file will be exported as an angle, or in 3d and the dimensions will be off. It is also important that the shapes being exported are in the middle of the screen or parts of them might be cut off.

I had students upload their final dxf files to a Google Classroom assignment and then imported them into a 2D Design file before sending them to my technician for cutting. If we had been face to face at school I would have probably had the students do this themselves, but it wasn’t feasible while locked down.

Tutorials

Sketchup for Schools also comes with a great set of tutorials for students to follow in order to build their skills. The tutorials come in Google Slides and video format, and all can be found on the Sketchup for Schools webpage. Personally, I think it is easier to access tutorials as pdfs so exported the slides as the pdf files below, and assigned them along with a video link so that students could choose the tutorial type they preferred:

I also found that I needed to create a number of other bespoke Sketchup tutorials to help students as we worked together to figure out the most effective tips and tricks for modelling with Sketchup for Schools:

To be honest, I still find the online version of Sketchup clunky in comparison to other more fully featured products linke OnShape. However, for teaching CAD to middle school students (especially virtually) it’s integration with Drive (or OneDrive is you are a MS school) and Classroom is fantastic and has significantly improved the workflow in my classroom and my ability to give students help and feedback.

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