Using Tinkercad And Other Modeling Systems to Contextualize Structures in The Classroom

In last week’s post, I discussed a watermill model that I created as part of my thesis research, this week I will discuss the program I used. Because I am a graduate student and new to modeling, I needed a program that was free and relatively easy for a novice to navigate. The program itself had to allow me to create the model from scratch. This was important because unlike photogrammetry, I wanted to make my model using measurements taken in the field and reconstruct the mill rather than just render it as it stood today.

Once I began working with Tinkercad, the website that I will review today, I realized its educational possibilities. Tinkercad is a free, browser-based CAD program, and is in no way the only option out there. As a former teacher, this program could easily be incorporated into classroom lessons. In my experience creating my watermill model, this is an exceptionally user-friendly, and free site for creating a free-form model and also possesses numerous applications in and out of the classroom.

Other apps and their descriptions available through Autodesk 123D. (Image by author)

Tinkercad is part of a family of free apps available from Autodesk 123D, I have not experimented with the other apps, each of them have different applications. There is an app for iPads as well as one that can generate 3D models from photos, much like PhotoScan, though I think PhotoScan is a more intense and professional process, an opinion based on limited experience. Most of the programs and sites I found, which are listed at the end of this post, were not suitable for my project due to requirement of downloading software or that only a short trial membership was available before requiring payment.

Home screens of Tinkercad. The beta version is on top and offers different tool options, though both perform similar operations. (Image by author)

A free account with Tinkercad lets you create designs and save them under different projects, allowing for generational designs; it also allows you to create several types of downloadable files of your model that can been uploaded to other sites such as Sketchfab. The resulting file can also be used to print your model either with a personal 3D printer or by a company of your choosing. There are two formats to create designs with, normal or Beta. Beta differentiates mostly in the user interface, allowing the use of keyboard shortcuts, as well as the ability to collaborate with others.

Watermill designed in tinkercad and then imported to a Sketchfab profile. (Image by author)
Geometric shape shown in Tinkercad with measurements as you would see them while working on the program. (Image by author)

Once an account is set up, the user is free to create projects and then save them to be accessed later. Once the project is created a work plane is displayed, at this point it is imperative that the scale you wish to use is set. In the bottom, right hand corner an edit grid option is displayed, inches and millimeters are your two options. For inches, 39.37 x 39.37 is the largest grid possible and for millimeters a 1000 x1000 grid is the limit. If a larger grid is necessary, this program is not a good option. The grid is easy to use and when scaling an object, the rulers that measure the item as you move it are invaluable.

Though you can create your own objects to use in your model, the provided geometric shapes and the community created objects are very versatile. One of the best features is the ability to use an object as a “hole”, for an example of this I used a cylinder and a sphere to create a ditch in the top of the cylinder. The hole is completed when you group the two objects together.

Shapes are also very easily manipulated. The example I’ve shown here is a pyramid altered into a thin section to make a trowel. Going into the program and manipulating the shapes is the best way to learn to navigate the program. One important feature is the Fit to View Selection this focuses in on the selected shape and helps when working with them. Of course, you can always create your own shape and even import shapes from your computer or other sites. Given a little bit of time and practice manipulating the shapes and holes, custom shapes and objects are easily rendered for specific items.

Three shapes created in Tinkercad. The cylinder shows what a shape looks like before it is grouped to create a void. Notice the different options for manipulating the pyramid. In the top left hand corner, the red arrow points to the “Fit to View” option. (Image by author)

This program is an exceptional option for use in public education settings. Some possibilities for this program in the classroom I can see are:

  • Having students explore symbols and how to create them
  • Using static objects such as cylinders or boxes and inventing a useful tool
  • Using scale to model an existing item or building
  • Designing an artifact from the past or one of the future

Without creating a full tutorial on how to use this site, I hope I have provided a starting point for anyone interested in modeling. Tinkercad provides a wide assortment of tools and an easy to navigate “sandbox” with the grid system to allow for a large degree of control over your design. In the classroom, students can create their own personal accounts because the program allows for collaboration between users; there is not a download requirement (most schools require permission to download programs, so you can skip the IT department).

This site is most certainly not the only one available to aspiring modelers. Here is a list of others I have found and explored:


Elizabeth Chance Campbell is a Master’s student at the University of Central Florida and will be defending her thesis, on an 1866 watermill, in the spring. She worked in a low income middle school for five years where she taught students with learning disabilities before moving to Georgia, where her wife is stationed in the Air Force. She hopes to take her experience as an educator and as an archaeologist to the next level by creating lessons that can be incorporated into classroom settings with students of all levels.