Improving visualization skills of engineering graphics students using simple JavaScript Web based games

Improving visualization skills of engineering graphics students using simple JavaScript Web based games

Crown, STephen W


A number of web-based games were created using simple JavaScript code to teach visualization skills needed for a course in engineering graphics. The games are part ofa comprehensive multimedia instructional CD-ROM/web page that consists of an integrated web site with links to hours of tutorial movies, lecture presentations of class lectures, and a series of interactive web-based quizzes. The web-based games provide an interactive graphics based introduction to engineering graphics and a class design project. In addition, several games are devoted to the development of visualization skills in the areas of multiview drawings and pictorials, auxiliary views, the manipulation of objects and coordinate systems in a 3-D coordinate space, and dimensioning and tolerancing. The games provide an interactive learning experience for students where tutorial animations specific to the students needs are interjected into the games. The feedback based on student input in the games allows the students to learn and apply new concepts simultaneously. The impact of the game pages on student understanding and the development of visualization skills have been positive as evidenced by improved performance on exams and positive feedback on surveys. The overall effectiveness of the instructional CD has also been positive, and this continues to be used and expanded.


Engineering Graphics in its very nature requires advanced visualization skills. Visualization is an essential tool for design, the creation of drawings, and the interpretation of drawings. Engineering Graphics is typically an introductory engineering course in many engineering curricula comprised of first year engineering students who are uncertain about their abilities and interest in engineering. As visualization is a developed skill, students are often frustrated by their inability to visualize objects presented in engineering drawings. In addition, given a simple design project, many students can conceive of a solution but cannot transfer their thoughts into drawings. As the field of engineering graphics has developed from the use of drafting table and T-squares to computer aided design drafting (CARD), students have an expectation of new computer based pedagogical methods. Engineering graphics should lead the way in the use of multimedia web-based teaching applications.

In addition to the need for students to develop visualization skills is the more fundamental need for individualized instruction in an engineering graphics lab. Students enter the course with varying backgrounds, learning abilities, and learning styles.1 Without individualized instruction, the course must cater to the average student leaving slower students confused and brighter students bored. Teaching at an accelerated pace challenges bright students but does not address the needs of slower students. The instructor can rarely carry the load of individual instruction alone. Laboratory assistants, although helpful, do not have the same level of training or motivation as the professor. To address this fundamental issue a comprehensive multimedia instructional CD/web page with hours of individualized interactive tutorial instruction was developed for the engineering graphics course. This material is available at a public web site ( Details of the instructional material development and use have been published by the author.2,3

Individual tutoring of every student in the lab by the instructor is now possible and does not require additional time or staff The CD/web page includes hours of tutorial movies, lecture presentations of all class lectures for the semester, web based games to reinforce significant course topics, and a series of interactive web based quizzes that prepare students for class exams. The project has been successful to the point where students rarely seek individual tutoring during lab and almost never need help outside of lab. Similar multimedia teaching projects have been developed for a variety of topics in engineering and have generally reported positive results.

Examples of such projects are presented by Haugsjaa &Woolf,4 Hill et al.,5 Kirkpatrick et al.,6 Reed and Afjeh,7 and Suni and Ross.8 Multimedia teaching materials are also found in related disciplines such as computer science9 and mathematics.10

The focus of this paper is on the interactive web-based games used to teach visualization tools that are difficult to teach using traditional methods. The instructional CD has virtually eliminated the need for personal instruction in the mechanics of using the CARD software to generate drawings. With this fundamental need met, almost all students were able to complete the homework assignments correctly. Many students, however, still had difficulty visualizing the objects they were drawing and understanding more difficult concepts such as constructing auxiliary views and dimensioning and tolerancing. In a study by Shabo et al.11 where students were introduced to web-based multimedia courseware on computer graphics, students visited the module on visualization most frequently. The games were added to the instructional CD to nurture the students in their visualization skills. The games are effective because they cause the students to think and interact, an important element noted by Dockterman,12 while holding their interest and providing immediate feedback. Providing immediate feedback is a function that printed worksheets do not support. Building on this notion Slater et al.13 asserts “educational software should be engaging, entertaining, attractive, interactive, and flexible: in short, game-like.” The interactive instructional games allow the student to learn and see a concept, such as the manipulation of coordinate systems, in an integrated approach. Such an approach is the most effective way to teach these concepts to those who cannot easily visualize, as noted by Mayer and Sims.14 Mayer and Anderson15 suggest that for students to understand and apply a concept they need to visualize it. If students do not immediately apply a new visualization concept those who have difficulty with visualization will quickly forget the information.

Each game were constructed as individual HTML web pages using simple JavaScript code to create the logic of the puzzle. A variety of formats were used which could each easily be adapted to teach additional concepts. The principal concepts taught with the nuzzles are listed below.

* An introduction to graphics and the final design project.

* Multiview drawings and pictorials

* Constructing auxiliary views

* Manipulation of parts and a reference coordinate system in a 3-D coordinate space

* Dimensioning and tolerancing

Each puzzle helps the student visualize the concept presented as they interact and receive positive feedback for demonstrating an understanding of the concept.



The first two games on the games page expose the students to the capabilities of CAD software and introduce them to the final design project. These two games show students several solid models generated using the CAD program that they are using in lab. Upon completion of each puzzle a rendered perspective animation of the solid model is shown. The entertaining presentation of the capabilities of the CAD software generates enthusiasm for the course. The second puzzle, which is completed by answering questions based on the lecture material, shows an animation of a faulty garage door mechanism that is redesigned by the students as a class design project. The presentation of the project through graphical interactive media demonstrates that engineering graphics is a powerful tool for design and communication.

The second puzzle gives immediate visual feedback to students on their understanding of the lecture material. As each question about engineering graphics, is answered correctly a portion of an image is revealed on a grid. The revealed image is the faulty garage door mechanism used in the design project. When the image is completed the mechanism comes to life as an animated GIF and reveals the internal workings of the mechanism. If a question is answered incorrectly, the question is replaced by an image encouraging the user to try again. This immediate visual feedback reinforces correct thinking and builds understanding of the design project.

Students with limited visualization skills have difficulty retaining visual information as stated by Carroll.” Providing immediate feedback allows them to process new information in small manageable packets. Feedback from a study Suni & Ross8 using multimedia to teach materials science shows that students prefer to process and apply information in small manageable packets.


Five puzzles are devoted to the development of visualization skills needed to understand pictorials and multiview drawings. The greatest focus was given to the development of this skill since it is the foundation upon which the other material is built. In the creative design process images are constructed in the mind as pictorial images and must be translated to multiview drawings for engineering and manufacturing applications. Comprehension of a multiview drawing requires the construction of a mental image of the object as a pictorial image. This mental connection between a single 3-D view of an object and multiple 2-D views is a developed visualization skill that is often problematic for students. The games help students develop mental connections between the two types of images.

The first game shown in Figure 1 shows nine isometric images and a single multiview drawing. The student must look at the multiview drawing and construct a pictorial image. That mental pictorial image is then compared to the isometric pictorial images on the screen and the correct image selected. This is an advanced skill for many students. A simpler approach is to look at each pictorial image and visualize one view, such as the top view. If it matches the multiview drawing shown the comparison is continued with the front and right side views. Visualizing a multiview drawing from a pictorial generally requires less development than the reverse.

Each time the student makes an error in solving puzzle a short tutorial animation is launched. In this game the tutorial dynamically illustrates how the views of a multiview drawing can be unfolded from a pictorial. The information learned from this tutorial animation is then immediately applied as the student continues the game. Oliver” states that the power of multimedia teaching media is that students interact with information and receive feedback rather than being “passive recipients of information.” Herrington and Oliver18 describe this multimedia environment where the student receives feedback as one which “provides for coaching at critical times, and scaffolding of support, where the teacher provides the skills, strategies and links that the students are unable to provide to complete the task.”

At the completion of the puzzle, the student is able to look at the multiview drawings and recall the pictorial images. This is the simplest of the puzzle structures; however it is one of the most effective in teaching a necessary visualization skill.

Another puzzle helps students visualize oblique pictorials and mentally reorient 3-D objects. The puzzle had the user match an oblique pictorial with the correct corresponding isometric drawing. In many cases the part must be reoriented about one or two axes to be identified. This visualization skill is needed to work with 3-D solid models. The immediate positive and negative feedback makes the game a learning tool, while as a printed worksheet, the exercise would primarily be a testing tool. At the completion of many of the puzzles a reward such as a hint for an upcoming exam question or help with the design project is displayed. This additional feedback encourages the students to explore the games.

A puzzle that advances the user through multiple levels of difficulty also focuses on visualization of multiview drawings. The completed puzzle reveals a multiview drawing (top, front, and right side view) and the associated pictorial. At least one image (pictorial, top, front, or right side view) is given for each object. The student must select the correct image for each position such that it complements the original image given. Completion of the puzzle requires the user to mentally maintain and redefine a number of partial images each time a new image is placed, making the higher levels of the game quite challenging. The game starts with a simple beginners level and progresses to a complex forth level with 26 different images from which to select. The same puzzle format is used for a puzzle that focuses on sectioned drawings. The puzzle revisits multiview visualization skills and introduces the use of cutting planes and section lines.

Another puzzle introduces the visualization tool of labeling vertices to identify objects in multiview drawings. Information about the x, y, and z coordinate of each vertex is determined from two separate views in the multiview drawing as shown in Figure 2. The user must identify each unlabeled vertex. Students must understand how points are projected between views to solve the puzzle. As errors are made, appropriate instruction is given through tutorial animations as shown in Figure 3. An error made in the selection of point #4 would launch an animation showing the common depth of point #4 in the top and right side view. The skill of identifying and labeling vertices in multiview drawings can be easily tested using printed worksheets, however the interactive feedback makes this game an effective teaching tool.


The interpretation and creation of auxiliary views requires skills in visualization. A puzzle that uses the labeling of vertices on a triangular surface serves as the platform for teaching auxiliary views. The puzzle shows the triangular surface in the top, front, and right side view of a multiview drawing. The primary auxiliary view shows the surface as an edge and the secondary auxiliary view shows the true shape of the oblique surface. Each vertex of the triangular surface is labeled in the top view. The puzzle asks the user to select vertices in order starting with the front view and continuing through the secondary auxiliary view. Specific tutorial animations are launched related to errors made in the puzzle. An animation showing the surface being rotated about fold lines help students visualize the concept of an edge view and true shape view. More complex information about the construction of auxiliary views is given as the student progresses through the puzzle. A link to the lecture material is also provided in all the tutorial animations, providing a contextual relationship to the lecture material. Completion of the puzzle launches a second puzzle that later appears on an exam to encourage students to explore the puzzles.



A common difficulty for students is manipulating parts and reference coordinate systems in 3-D drawings. When students begin to create drawings in a 3-D coordinate space they must simultaneously learn to draw and manipulate the object using the complicated tools of the CAD program, which causes confusion. Students will often make random rotations of a part and quickly lose control of the orientation of the object. The game shown in Figure 4 allows the student to manipulate an existing 3-D object by using successive 90 rotations about a fixed coordinate system. The part must be manipulated to fit into an opening shown on the right side of the puzzle. The number of rotations used to orient the object are recorded and displayed when the user successfully places the object into the opening. Completing the puzzle using only two rotations requires good visualization of the part and an understanding of the right-hand rule. The initial position of the block is randomly determined each time the puzzle is reloaded. The puzzle forces the student to plan two successive rotations to accomplish any desired orientation. Learning how to systematically manipulate a simple 3-D object in a controlled environment helps the student maintain control of complex solid models.

The CAD program also allows for the manipulation of a reference coordinate system. For the first two-thirds of the engineering graphics course students work with one fixed 3-D reference coordinate system. Manipulation of the coordinate system is more difficult than manipulation of an object in a fixed coordinate system. Accomplishing both requires developed visualization skills. The puzzle is similar to the puzzle described above except that rotations of the coordinate system are relative to the changing coordinate system. The puzzle requires an advanced understanding of the relationship between the axes and direction of positive rotation in each coordinate direction. The puzzle begins by randomly selecting an orientation of the reference coordinate system. The axes must then be manipulated to align with the fixed coordinate system shown. The development of a systematic approach for manipulating a reference coordinate system in a controlled environment with constant feedback helps the student maintain control of views and the drawing plane when working with complex 3-D drawings. Such a skill is difficult to develop in the CAD environment where there is much flexibility and limited feedback


Two games focus on dimensioning and tolerancing. The first shows a series of dimensioned drawings and ask the user to respond to questions about the drawing such as “How many necessary dimensions are missing from the drawing?” As errors are made, appropriate dimensioning rules are reviewed before returning the student to the puzzle. Errors are recorded and the student is encouraged to review the material until fewer errors are made.

The puzzle on tolerancing serves as a teaching aid to a homework assignment where students are asked to dimension and tolerance a block with a hole drilled through it such that it will have a clearance fit with a mating part. Before the introduction of the puzzle most students would skip the assignment because of difficulty visualizing the variation in the dimensions of individual parts and how this affected assemblies. The puzzle lets the students explore different dimension and tolerances while visually seeing the effect on gaps and overlap between parts. Once the students can visualize the solution, most are curious about solving the problem analytically. The puzzle walks the students through increasing levels of difficulty and condudes with an animation explaining the analytical solution.


The development of the multimedia instructional CD/web page has in many ways eliminated the need for personal instruction in the lab. The removal of the instructor from the lab however has disconnected the students from the instructor. Students who are not connected to the instructor and personally encouraged are more likely to fall behind and eventually drop the course. A slight decrease in the pass rate of students since replacing the lab instructor with computer-based instructional materials is shown in Figure 5. One benefit of the instructional games on the CD is that they reintroduce some interaction and feedback into the learning process. This is especially important for students taking the course in the online section offered. For such students the games provide an indispensable source of interactive tutoring. It is difficult to deny, however, the need for personal interaction between the student and the instructor.

An objective measure of the impact of the visualization games on the students is their performance on exams. One of the games focuses on the student’s difficulty to visualize rotating coordinate systems in a 3D coordinate space. An exam question testing that visualization skill is shown in Figure 6. The average score on this question for semesters spanning the introduction and development of the visualization games is shown in Table 1. Scores range from zero to five where an average score of 2.5 would be obtained by guessing. A conservative adjustment to the scores has been made by the removal of zeros from the data set since they likely represent a fair understanding of the concept.

The average score has steadily increased since the introduction of the games in the fall of 1997. The first year that the games were introduced they were simply presented as an optional learning activity. The increase in the average score for the spring of 1998 is not statistically significant based on a 95% level of confidence. The other increases, however, are statistically significant. By the spring of 1999. the use of the games became part of the required assignments for the course. In the summer of 1999, the tutorial animations were added to the games. The significant increase in student performance suggests that the games are most effective when they provide feedback and instruction. However, students also need to be encouraged to use the tools they are given as evidenced by the increase in performance in the spring of 1999. In the fall of 2000, the games were again given as an optional activity, which was accompanied by a slight drop in performance.

The increased performance on exams when students were required to use a teaching aid that previously was optional illustrates that students have different learning preferences and styles. Many students will spend five to ten minutes exploring a game while other will spend over an hour. Exposing students to a breadth of teaching methods ensures that a greater number will be exposed to a method that relates to them. Providing students with complete control over the methods they are exposed to does not ensure the best performance as illustrated by the data.

The visualization tools that are developed by the student as they interact with the game pages are invaluable to the student and difficult to teach using other methods. Zeadally and Wong” state that incorporating multimedia into instructional design allows “teachers to explain complex processes and tasks.” As the students visualize objects repeatedly in the games with positive and negative feedback they exercise a developing skill that would otherwise be tedious and time consuming if done using a printed worksheet. By the end of the course the students have been exposed to a breadth of examples using interactive graphics to teach and communicate. Such exposure presents engineering graphics as a powerful communication tool, whereas in the past students had a much narrower focus for the application of engineering graphics.


Two surveys have been administered to students to better understand the effect of the change in pedagogy as perceived by students. The first survey is a general university course evaluation given at the end of each semester. Results of the survey for the period spanning the development of the computer based instructional materials are shown in Table 2.

The overall student rating of the instructor has not significantly changed with the introduction of the computer-based instructional materials. These data suggest that students have adapted in part to the substitution of computer-based tutorials for personal interaction with the instructor. It should be noted that students connect the instructional material with the instructor. The materials carry the personality of the instructor through the use of authentic audio and video. The enthusiasm of the instructor is communicated through the media. Students know that the instructor specifically developed the materials for them. This is reflected in their enthusiastic recommendation of the instructor to other students. Their positive view of the instructional tools is reflected in a positive view of the instructor.

The survey shows that students have a clearer understanding of what is being communicated in the classroom; however, they sense that the communication is one way. This is consistent with the observation that performance on exams has increased but that fewer students finish the course. The ability to express ideas and personally communicate with the instructor keeps many students interested and active in a course. This is a deficiency of computer based training and could be addressed by reintroducing the instructor in the lab or by providing more opportunities for communication, such as online discussion groups.

Results of a second survey specific to the engineering graphics course and the instructional materials are shown in Table 3. This survey was given during the spring of 1999. Approximately 97% of those surveyed indicated that they regularly use the instructional material and find it a useful tool for the course. A smaller group of 72% identified the games as a “helpful interactive approach to teaching key concepts in the course.” Although an overwhelming majority of the students found the games helpful, some found other instructional methods more beneficial. To reach all students a variety of teaching methods must be employed, as noted by Carver et al.0 The games, an effective tool for a majority of the students, help provide that needed variety.

Approximately half (47%) of the class identified a personal deficiency in visualization skills at the start of the course. A greater percentage (60%) indicated that the games helped them develop visualization skills. These data indicate that even those students with a positive view of their visualization skills increased that ability through interaction with the games.

An indicator of the positive reception of the instructional materials is found in responses to the comparative statements. Students strongly agreed (68%) that the instructional material “supports the course in a way that a textbook could not.” Over 80% responded that they prefer the computer-based instructional material to a textbook and think such material would be helpful for other courses. In response to the question “What material on the CD is most helpful?” the second most popular response was “the games and quizzes.” Similarly, in response to the question “How could the CD be improved?” the second most common response was “more games and quizzes.” The most helpful material on the CD, as identified by students, was the use of homework tutorial movies (see reference 3). The students have identified the games included in the instructional material for building visualization skills as an indispensable part of the course material.


The project has undergone a variety of external evaluations of the pedagogical methods and the educational value of the materials. Specifically, the project was reviewed under three programs: the Best Practices of Multimedia in The University of Texas System, the Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Education Courseware, and the National Science Foundation Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Educational Materials Development Program. In each review, the interactive web based games were evaluated as an integral part of the entire project.

The project was evaluated in five areas by the committee for Best Practices of Multimedia in The University of Texas System and found to be an excellent example in all areas for which it was evaluated. In all five areas the project was sited as one of the top two examples reviewed. The areas of evaluation are listed as follows:

* Instructional Design: Are the individual needs of the learner taken into account?

* Integration of Media: How well does the project combine different media to produce an effective whole? Are the media used necessary for the overall effectiveness of the project?

* Innovation: Use of multimedia technology in a unique way to attain some objectives) that otherwise could not be attained, which results in a changed learning and teaching paradigm.

* Evaluation of Learning: The extent the project assesses the learners’ mastery of the objectives. Was practice and feedback included in the project?

* Educational Value: Can this project enhance students’ learning?

The Engineering Graphics materials were selected for the 1999 Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Education Courseware sponsored by the National Engineering Education Delivery system (NEEDS), John Wiley Publishers, and Autodesk. The review was based on the materials engineering content, multimedia design, and pedagogical design. The award was presented and the software distributed at the 1999 Frontiers in Education Conference in Puerto Rico.

The project was submitted as a prototype for a NSF CCLI– EMD grant proposal entitled Implementation of Pedagogies for Interactive Computer and Web-based Undergraduate Learning. The funded three-year grant will expand the use of the pedagogical methods developed on the Engineering graphics project, including the use of interactive web-based games, to include a number of courses in the mechanical engineering curriculum.

The multimedia best practices web site, ~best/index.htm, and the NEEDS web site,, provide links to numerous other examples of multimedia used in teaching and a variety of tools and helps for those developing similar projects. Such sites provide a vehicle for dissemination of teaching materials that can successfully be used in their current form or modified to cover other course content or course objectives. The sharing of such information is essential because of the investment of time required for project development.


Beginning with the first puzzle on the instructional CD, students are exposed to the capabilities of CAD software and an example of the usefulness of engineering graphics as a tool for communication and design. This exposure is further developed with the graphical presentation of the design project in the second game. The games address a growing expectation among students, who are adept at browsing the Internet, that the computer is a natural mechanism for the presentation of information in engineering graphics. The average student has adapted well to the use of a multimedia instructional approach in engineering graphics. Introduction of the media has allowed for more individual self-paced instruction and the further development of visualization skills through use of the interactive games.

The interactive games have been effectively used to teach the visualization skills needed to generate and interpret complex multiview drawings and pictorials. The games give immediate feedback to the student making the interaction with the game a learning process rather than an evaluation process. The games, which walk the student through an increasing range of difficulty using different visualization techniques and puzzle formats, challenge the student to develop to a more advanced level of comprehension.

Difficult visualization concepts, such as the systematic manipulation of objects and coordinate systems, are easily illustrated using the games. The games allow for focused attention to the concept being taught by simplifying the problem to illustrate the concept. In the example of coordinate system manipulation, the rotation of the axes is fixed to simple 90-degree rotations. In addition, the immediate positive feedback given to students enhances their understanding of the concept being taught.

In spite of obstacles, the development and use of web-based games for use in engineering graphics has been a positive experience. The games have been positively received by students and have significantly increased development of visualization skills as indicated by improved performance on exams. Notable challenges are the time required to develop the games and the programming skills required. The impact on students is that they are better equipped to understand and use engineering graphics effectively.


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Department of Engineering

University of Texas-Pan American

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Jul 2001

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