At the Abbey School, Year 8 science pupils are getting a different viewpoint on life. Instead of viewing human organs - such as eyes and ears - as flat, two-dimensional images on a whiteboard or screen, they are seeing them as solid, three-dimensional objects.
In the entertainment world, 3D is now all the rage, with films such as Avatar breaking box office records. But 3D also has great educational potential. "The children have been very positive about using 3D. 'That's awesome!' and 'It made me see what it meant,' are typical reactions," says Kathryn Macaulay, deputy head at the Abbey School, which is an independent in Reading, Berkshire.
Nick Ross of education technology company RM, which provides 3D systems, agrees: "3D is very exciting for education in terms of what it can do for displaying things to students. 3D could be a boon for subjects such as science and geography."
The equipment consists of a 3D-ready projector that can output a video signal at a frequency of 120 Hertz - twice the normal rate. Companies such as Optoma and Vivitek market a range of 3D-ready projectors that can also display standard 2D images. Prices start at around #163;450, although a laptop with a high-spec graphics card and 3D software are also required. Viewers also need to wear 3D glasses, which are synchronised with the projector's output so that each eye receives a different image, giving an object its depth.
The Abbey School is using an Optoma 3D-ready projector and a laptop loaned by Texas Instruments, and XpanD active 3D glasses, which cost around #163;60 a pair.
"The glasses are robust and the battery lasts around 40 hours," says Ms Macaulay.
An alternative 3D technology uses glasses with polarised lenses costing around #163;1 a pair, although this "passive" 3D system is less effective.
"The great thing about 3D is that there's very little to learn when it comes to using the technology. It's flexible and doesn't disrupt the normal classroom," says Ms Macaulay. "Teachers find it comfortable to use because it fits in with their teaching."
But she says there is a shortage of education-focused materials. One exception is 3D software produced by Middlesbrough-based developers Amazing Interactives. "We've been using their 3D Senses software, which has fantastic 3D images of the eye and ear," she adds. "You can rotate and move the 3D images."
Emmbrook School in Wokingham is also using 3D in the classroom, using the same equipment as the Abbey School. Claire Loveday, Emmbrook's curriculum leader for biology, has been trialling it with Year 8 pupils, and has also used 3D with Year 10 and Year 11 pupils for revision.
"Pupils who find it difficult to visualise things find 3D very useful - it grabs their attention," she says. "An advantage of 3D is that you can rotate the whole image, for example, to show how the diaphragm and rib cage move when breathing.
"The 3D image feels like it's actually in the room with you. If you use a model, you have to have everyone around the front, but with 3D pupils at the back can see it as well. In fact, they often have the better view."
Emmbrook is involved in a trial, backed by Texas Instruments and Optoma, to gather evidence on the educational impact of 3D. Ms Loveday is working with Ros Johnson, head of science at the Abbey School, on the trial. "The potential of 3D is vast - it's exciting. Imagine being able to travel through a 3D cell or a chemical molecule, or seeing how DNA splits," says Ms Loveday.
Ms Macaulay predicts the next step in 3D will be the ability to interact with the 3D objects, and she is working with a US company to develop this idea.
There's no doubt that it is a technique with huge potential for teachers.
"The children are excited by 3D," says Ms Loveday. "3D literally provides another dimension to the classroom."
3D in design and technology
3D computer-aided design has long been used in DT, but new products are transforming it in schools. A1 Technologies has launched several revolutionary products, including the David Laserscanner (#163;320) which scans 3D objects, producing a 3D image that can be imported into a computer. The RapMan 3D Printer (#163;795) enables students to create 3D shapes in different materials, while the Chameleon (#163;495) is a 3D haptic touch modelling system, which lets students see and feel 3D objects displayed on a computer screen, by using a 3D mouse.
Kathryn Macaulay's tips for using 3D
1. You do not need to use 3D projection for long sessions (10-15 minutes). Use 3D images to enhance teaching - a short exposure makes a big impact.
2. Research the best software to use. Many models are relevant for a range of curricular subjects, but few have been adapted specifically for education.
3. Evaluate projectors; invite manufacturers to demonstrate their products in your school.
4. Ask staff and pupils to evaluate 3D glasses.
5. Start small. There is no additional cost in replacing an older projector with one that is 3D-ready. Begin using 3D with, say, two sets of glasses and a computer.
6. Have a strategic approach to investment. Analyse the need, plan the implementation, and evaluate the outcome for further ventures.
7. Form partnerships with other schools using 3D. Pooling ideas creates useful resources.
8. Engage the whole-school community (and parents) in 3D work you are doing. Parents will be interested in how their children are using new technologies to enhance their learning.