[Bf-education] Blender 101

Tom Haines thaines at gmail.com
Mon Nov 14 23:24:47 CET 2016

Dear Mike,

Here are answers to your questions, from 3Dami! Apologies for the length...

Can you give a little background about yourself as a Blender educator?
What’s your experience as a teacher?

Tom: Been running 3Dami for 5 years. To give a quick rundown, Pete and I
run a seven day summer school every year for 14-18 year olds, where teams
of 9 go through the entire process of making a 3D animated film, from
scratch. They start with writing scripts, end with a premiere, and run like
a real small studio, with a student director and producer. We make them do
everything, except for audio and textures, though it’s pretty common for
them to do those as well. I have also run three hour sessions to teach
Blender to 10-16 year olds. In my day job I do have some actual teaching
responsibilities, but it’s mostly just 1-on-1 teaching assistant stuff for
masters students, with the occasional lecture and designing coursework, not
involving Blender.

Pete: I started teaching Blender in school in 2007, the old interface, to
12 year olds in London. This was successful but I took up another job and
didn’t come back to teaching until 2009. Through an after school club I
taught Blender to 16-18 year olds looking to study to get into the
film/games industry. My students won 4 awards (2012 - Turing
2013 - Apocalypse & Cheese Quest
2015 - Welcome to 2016
I founded 3Dami with Tom in 2012 (see above). In 2014 Google awarded me
$15k to create resources to teach computational thinking through 3D
animation to school aged students; this money has been used to create a 3
hour intro booklet (the basis for part of b3d101), as well as training ~60
teachers in running blender classes and delivering Blender taster sessions
to 400+ students.

What format is your lessons? Classroom? Online? 1 on 1?

Everything 3Dami does is classroom based, though actual teaching includes
lecturing and a lot of 1-on-1, as students have specific problems they need
to solve. We also have a series of online tutorials which may be found on
the b3d101 website, or on our YouTube channel. They were created with
Google CS4HS funding, and Pete should be making more at some point.

The Blender taster sessions we run are quite flexible. It can involve
students seeing the teacher demonstrating work, working individually or in
pairs to create animations, and watching videos / using booklets to aid
them in learning new concepts. At the same time the teacher circulates to
offer support to any struggling students, or advice to exceptional
students. Throughout the sessions we get students to visit other students
to ask them how they created their work, using them as ‘mini-teachers’.

Who is your students/audience? What?s their age and skill level? Where are

they located?

The annual 3Dami summer school is always 14-18, but for other events we
adjust to cover anywhere in 10-21. We have had a 6 year old sneak into an
event for 10-16 year olds! Before attending 3Dami we expect students to
submit a portfolio, with at least one work made using Blender, to check
they have learnt the very basics, but probably around half of a typical
3Dami event are near beginners. The shorter lessons (1-3 hours) are aimed
at absolute beginners.

The students we invite to 3Dami come from incredibly varied backgrounds,
which is deliberate - we want heterogeneous teams. Everything from computer
science through to fine art, and everything inbetween.

What skillsets have you taught? (i.e. modelling, animation, games)

Everything but games (which we would like to remedy someday, but have not
yet figured out how to translate the current model). And I mean everything
- they are making films, so there isn’t a single part of Blender they
havn’t used. For beginners we tend to do the absolute minimum of modelling,
materials and lighting so they can create an OK scene, with a bit of
animation for students that get to it.

What are some issues that you see students struggle with in their first
hour with Blender?

The main issue is switching Blender into a mode and not knowing how to
switch it back to what they were using before, or even understanding it has
happened. In our experience the complexity of the interface is not an issue
as long as you make it clear that they can ignore most of it and tell them
exactly (with pictures!) which buttons to press.

How would you describe the learning curve of Blender?

Absolutely fine - it’s comparable to any other heavyweight 3D modelling
software, and probably at the easier end of the spectrum, if only because
it has had the most recent interface refresh. I have seen a 6 year old use
it… Some parts of the interface can be a bit weird/inconsistent etc. but
the UI team seems to be working on that. For instance the choices of what
to have in the menus and what to have short cut only can be weird at times.

What part of Blender is surprisingly intuitive to the students?

I wouldn’t say it’s surprising, but the move/rotate/scale widget is really
helpful, and most of a beginner's time is spent interacting with it. The
right mouse button thing generally isn’t an issue. The approach of having
specific workflows based around switching to the right mode for solving a
problem limits the scope for things going wrong (when it’s not
accidental!), and is immediately intuitive to students. Beginners don’t use
shortcuts, so it’s important all of the core features they need are
available in menus/buttons.

What are some ongoing issues that constantly frustrates students?

Accidental mode switches. Hell, that often catches me out, the difference
being I realise, check and find the issue in a few seconds, while a student
needs a teacher to help them, assuming one is available. I have two main
feature requests here:


   A menu item that resets the Blender interface - window layout and modes.
   Or just modes - that’s the big issue.

   The ability to disable particular modes. Note that because of ‘muscle’
   memory we would prefer to ghost out disabled items, rather than hide them,
   so that students can graduate to the ‘all features’ version without any

Additionally, some school administrators leave a lot of hidden files lying
around (School IT in the UK has an extremely poor reputation, unfortunately
for good reasons), and Blender doesn’t hide files that are marked as hidden
on Windows systems. This can be problematic for students when they are
browsing through the directory structure, as they can’t find the
files/directories they want. Some schools have actually refused to install
Blender for this reason, because it lets students browse to hidden folders
that ‘they shouldn’t access’. Obviously this is silly, but it’s still a
problem we have faced.

Students sometimes miss the tabs on the left hand side - they are both
small and lack contrast, and are hence easy to miss. A slight tweak to the
default theme, either colour, size or both, would help.

Is there any customization you’ve done to Blender that makes Blender easier

to teach/learn?

Nope. Part of this is because it’s not required in our experience, part of
it’s because students are learning Blender at home before coming to a 3Dami
event, and changing the interface would only confuse them when they arrive.
I’m not counting enabling plugins that ship with Blender by default - we do
plenty of that. There are a number of plugins we would like, but they are
all a bit blue sky - mentioned below.

What are 3 key areas of Blender that could use improvement in order to
reduce the learning curve?

Obviously you’re here to modify Blender, but it’s worth saying the biggest
problem is the shortage of teachers willing to teach Blender (due to not
knowing it, though it’s debatable if that is really required), and the
materials available to help them teach. Not just tutorials but worksheets
and lesson plans. Online tutorials tend to be aimed at self-learning
university students, and are usually of little use to teachers.

Continuing the above theme, it’s also not just about Blender. At 3Dami we
require asset management and a render farm, and we have our own (
https://github.com/thaines/rfam) because the standard tools just don’t work
well with students. But my time is limited, so the feature list of the
above is a long way short of what we desire - there would be value in
getting the existing, and better maintained tools, into a state where we
can use them.

You also might want to consider the blender.org website - we need a good
education section, that helps both teachers and students find what they

Getting to Blender itself, at the 3Dami summer school our problems are the
exact same problems facing any small professional studio. Dependency graph
and linking issues for instance. Particularly cleaning up after linking has
gone wrong, though Blender has got much better at that now. Lack of
overrides, the physics system biting us on the arse, no mega shader. In
other words, all the stuff the Blender devs are working on anyway. However,
I will highlight the principal of a ‘golden path’ - when software requires
you to do something in a particular way, but there is no warning if you
deviate from the path until it doesn’t work, with no way to link the
failure back to the original mistake. Blender is actually not that bad on
this front, but it still has some golden paths, and they burn us regularly
- even if you tell a teenager to only do something one way, they will
inevitably try and do it the way that doesn’t work! Linking groups is a
perfect example - every year I have to explain to a student why they can’t
move an object they just linked, or why linking a mesh does nothing. The
rigify plugin is similarly problematic. Understanding why a cycles render
is taking 8 hours as well. I realise all of the above are probably beyond
the scope of 101, but thought them worth mentioning anyway - education is
not easily siloed, and touches on everything.

Considering when we teach to younger students, a complex interface is not a
problem when there is a teacher giving them permission to dive in and
ignore most of the buttons. This may not be the case for self-learning
students online. As already mentioned, the ability to easily reset the
interface and to disable (ghost, not hide) modes would be of value to us.

What else can you tell me to help build a better Blender for beginners?

Your initial email implied you would be creating a separate build, rather
than allowing us to configure the standard release. We would want a smooth
transition from ‘cut down’ to ‘everything’, so would think it should be in
the standard build. We don’t want students mastering the basics then having
to download another version of blender to use the full version. This would
also cause problems in schools, where they would only download the ‘101’
version and refuse/take ages to install the full version. This might be a
switch on the splash screen to put blender into ‘b3d101 mode, with another
very obvious button to put it back again. It might even be the ability to
fully customise the exact features desired of Blender on the splash screen.

To get a little wild, here are four things we want - they are mostly
complementary to Blender rather than new features, but all would massively
improve our ability to teach Blender. These are obviously far beyond 101,
but worth mentioning so you are aware how we would like everything to
ultimately fit together, assuming someone ever finds the time to do any of
the below! :


   A website to which students can upload and show off their work, using a
   plugin that comes with Blender. This would help us manage portfolio
   submission to attend events. Reality is we probably need to make this
   ourselves, as we would want them to submit their various forms to attend
   using the same website. This builds on Seymour Papert’s educational theory
   of ‘constructionism’, where students learn best when creating and sharing
   their work. The best example of this is the scratch programming environment
   by MIT (https://scratch.mit.edu/), which has hundreds of thousands of
   children all over the world sharing their programming projects in a way
   that other students can look at the underlying code and fork their own
   versions. A similar Blender version of this would allow students to not
   only see the end animation/models, but look at the Blender files that made

   A asset management/render farm plugin, with uploading/downloading
   to/from a remote server, with proper version control and support for
   linking, plus the ability to add external assets with licensing information
   - essentially everything we have in our classroom setup but online, so
   students can continue to work at home during 3Dami events if they want,
   but, more importantly, after the event is finished continue to polish. Our
   films are never good enough to submit to a film festival, simply because of
   the time pressure, but if students could keep working online afterwards
   many of them could be polished to that standard. Additionally, we have had
   teams of our students make films online, using tools like Dropbox and
   Skype, which aren’t great - we want to provide them with a proper system.
   This would imply a need to also support pre-production - script development

   Platform that organises a curated set of tutorials into a ‘tech-tree’,
   so that students can work towards a specific goal by completing all
   tutorials leading up to, e.g. ‘can make a game character’. This would
   require multiple versions of each tutorial (video with sound, video without
   sound (ideally recut rather than just subtitles - young students can’t read
   and watch at the same time), and text), multilingual support, worksheets,
   customisable views of the lesson tree for teachers, and the ability for
   students to submit work so their teacher can grade it, with some kind of
   system to ensure consistency of teacher grades.

   Finally, one that might actually fall within the scope of 101! However,
   while it’s a nice sounding idea it’s unclear if this would be of greater
   value than good YouTube videos, and the extra work required by tutorial
   creators may mean it never gets the critical mass to be valuable. It also
   has the potential to hold hands so much that students don’t really learn.
   Maybe treat this as a potential future discussion rather than a definite
   desire. The idea would be for a system that loads tutorials and splits the
   screen to show instructions on one side while letting a student use the
   interface on the other. A number of ways for the instructions to interact
   with the user could then exist - showing where menu items are would be a
   simple one, all the way up to demonstrating what the student is meant to do
   with the live interface and letting them reset back to an earlier step. I
   could imagine this as a plugin, but it might actually work better as a web
   browser plugin, that adds support for extra markup in html that gets
   communicated to running instances of Blender, e.g. ‘click this link and
   Blender will show that menu item’ (have a look at the MIT scratch intro).
   An alternative would be to adopt an approach taken in the first levels of
   real time strategy games, where you have hint arrows and text boxes telling
   you what to click, you can't progress or use other features until you have
   clicked the correct buttons / completed the task.

One last thing: Could we get the screencast keys plugin back? (I know it’s
still available to download, but worry it’s going to break at some point)
Making tutorials is still a significant part of improving Blender
education, and we need that to be as easy as possible!

Kind regards,
Tom & Pete

On 12 November 2016 at 19:55, Mike Pan <mike.c.pan at gmail.com> wrote:

> Hey guys,
> To get things started with the Blender 101 design project, I've put
> together some questions that I wanted to ask you. If you can take 10
> minutes out of your day to answer it and mail it back to me, that would
> help a lot.
> ---
> Blender 101 Educator Questionnaire
> Can you give a little background about yourself as a Blender educator?
> What’s your experience as a teacher?
> What format is your lessons? Classroom? Online? 1 on 1?
> Who is your students/audience? What’s their age and skill level? Where are
> they located?
> What skillsets have you taught? (i.e. modelling, animation, games)
> What are some issues that you see students struggle with in their first
> hour with Blender?
>  How would you describe the learning curve of Blender?
> What part of Blender is surprisingly intuitive to the students?
> What are some ongoing issues that constantly frustrates students?
> Is there any customization you’ve done to Blender that makes Blender
> easier to teach/learn?
> What are 3 key areas of Blender that could use improvement in order to
> reduce the learning curve.
> What else can you tell me to help build a better Blender for beginners?
> ---
> Thanks,
> Mike
> On Thu, 10 Nov 2016 at 00:22 Mike Pan <mike.c.pan at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Hi all,
>> For those of you who don't know me, I am working for the Blender
>> Foundation on something called Blender 101. What is Blender 101? Glad you
>> asked!
>>    - Blender 101 will be a release-compatible build of Blender
>>    (reads/writes the same blend files)
>>    - 1 build with several UIs optimized for different use cases
>>    - Target audience are 3D beginners (students and casual content
>>    creators)
>>    - UX controls will be compatible with Blender 2.8 (minimal relearning
>>    when user transitions to the full version)
>>    - Goal is to simplify the interface, but not restrict user experiences
>> My process:
>>    - Gather feedback from Blender community
>>    - Gather feedback from local (Canadian) schools where Blender is
>>    taught
>>    - Research industry leaders/competitors
>>    - Understand the need of the 3D printing industry (Funder is Aleph)
>>    - Create and publish proposal by end of year.
>>    - Will continually publish my work on the my wiki
>>    <https://wiki.blender.org/index.php/User:mpan3> as well other online
>>    venues.
>> The project has just started and I am in the information gathering phase,
>> so *I would love to hear from you! If you can share your experience
>> teaching Blender, that would help this project immensely. * So please
>> allow me to to pick your brain.   Any and all feedbacks are welcomed!
>> Thanks,
>> Mike
> _______________________________________________
> Bf-education mailing list
> Bf-education at blender.org
> https://lists.blender.org/mailman/listinfo/bf-education
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