Introducing a 3D Google Earth Model of UWFox


Geographic Information Science is taught in the UW Colleges as GEO 106, a course designed to introduce students to various forms of geographic information. Goals of the course includes exposure to many skills, such as map reading and interpretation, map analysis, cartographic methods, remotely sensing data, and an understanding of technical applications of geographic remote systems.

At UWFox this spring, GEO 106 encountered a number of technical problems largely related to software and hardware obsolescence. So old were these machines that even our resident Helpdesk miracle workers found the challenges daunting. Despite mounting frustrations, the students kept an overwhelmingly positive attitude and pushed forward.

Just after midterm, an important GIS lesson was again aborted by the software company’s failure to support its older products still in use. At that time, the class discussed alternate project lessons that could provide a laboratory and application for all necessary skills while creating a product useful beyond the limits of this particular course section or semester.

With this, the first three-dimensional model of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley campus was born.


Setting Up the Project

Because of the very circumstances that prompted the creation of this assignment it was, in fact, very much designed on-the-fly.  As an experiment, the students were allowed to set parameters for the assignment.

With student input, it was decided the project would:

  • Include only exterior surfaces of UWFox buildings
  • Exclude plants, sculptures, signage, pavement
  • Divide the campus into portions to model
  • Create teams assigned to model each portion
  • Be collaborative, not competitive between groups

To prepare for the project, students completed a number of labs focusing on the practice of field measuring techniques including compass bearings, orienteering, personal measurements such as pacing and eye height, and the application of trigonometry to calculating building and object heights.

Geographic Information Science Skills Applied

  • Interpretation of existing scaled floor plan
  • Compilation of incomplete floor plan sources
  • Creation of scaled footprint of campus buildings
  • Field measuring of length and width
  • Field calculations of object height
  • Trigonometry (use of sine, cosine, tangent)
  • Creation of remotely sensed imagery
  • Use of remotely sensed imagery for detail additions
  • Organization of significant numbers of data points.
  • Construction of scaled geovisualized model of campus
  • Application of data points to visualized model
  • Georeferenced model to larger coordinate system

Students then joined self-selected working groups. Each of the groups was assigned a portion of the campus based roughly on their preference.  Every possible caution was taken to ensure that the modeling difficulty of sections assigned were roughly equal.

The basic campus map below, adapted from the UWFox website shows the divisions of campus and to which section students were assigned:


Project Submissions

Science Wing

(Students: Fanessa Bowe, Kathryn Hirte, Kelly Kearn, Stephanie Littlejohn)

This is the second newest portion of the UWFox campus, being constructed in the mid-1990s. Though it was the smallest section assigned in terms of floor space covered, it had a few interesting little challenges that kept this group busy.

An Overview of the Science Wing model.

The students paid nice attention to the architectural details in the administrative section of the wing. One of the challenges in this wing was a replication of the polysided dome of the Barlow Planetarium. The students didn’t quite get the angle or altitude of the dome correctly, but it still does suggest the real feature, and getting it to show this well a lot of effort!

These skylights, which stick out of the room at really odd angles, gave the group a particular challenge in terms of measuring and then replicating. Because we did not have access to the roof for safety reasons, the students were forced to improvise with the measurements using rangefinders, estimates and aerial photos.

One of the interesting improvisations from this group came in the campus botany greenhouse. Instead of using photographs to lay over the shape, the group decided to create transparent tinted glass.

One of the other cool details from this group was the emphasis on the including the Weis Earth Science Museum, a slightly later addition to the building that includes a curved wall and this signage. The replication of the signage, which sticks out just like this image suggests, was a very nice touch.


Library, Union, Children’s Center

(Students: Amanda Appleton, Marcus Driessen, Chelse Godfrey, Evan Van Stralen)

The Library section of the building includes some of the oldest existing portions of the campus, as well as a student union and children’s center which were added later. This was the only portion of the campus modeling that included an outbuilding, and this section included two.

The Library and Union are the left portion. The UWFox Children’s Center is on the right.

Note the attention paid to replicating the architectural detail of the library windows.

Here is the end of the Student Union, plus the oddball greenhouse outbuilding that houses a donated botanical collection.

An obscure portion of this section is the Math Lab, which was the original campus planetarium that was repurposed after the construction of the larger Barlow Planetarium. The group managed to replicate the angles and elevation of this feature quite well.

The Children’s Center was another outbuilding this group had to tackle. The subtlety of the rooflines actually presented more difficulty than it would appear at first glance.


1300 Wing

(Students: Matt Giesbers, David Kington, Aaron Kufner, Drew Lamers, Zach Zacharias)

The 1300 Wing of the UWFox Campus is another hodgepodge of the campus that’s been added and connected together over time. Some parts of the building here are original to the Midway Road campus, while other portions were installed within the past decade or so. The variety of architecture in the section really played to the strength of this group, who submitted a model with many nuances and subtleties.

An Overview of the 1300 Wing.

The Buildings & Grounds portion of the 1300 Wing. Notice the detail paid to garage doors, different wall covering material textures and the like.

This portion is a lecture hall (room 1336) that was built substantially later than the rest of the wing. This meant that the lecture hall wasn’t on any existing scaled floorplans that we had to work with. See that weird little angle to that wall that creates a small alcove in this portion? The group really nailed that.

Another thing they really nailed is the subtle detail of this office wing, which is firmly rooted in that mid-century modern architecture with the straight lines and conformist geometry.

One other thing I liked about this particular wing, which may not have even been intentional, is the use of this particular image to create the entryway, because one of the group members is partially visible in the reflection. Just a personal touch that I liked.


1800 Wing & Second Floor

(Students: Eric Fitizgerald, Matt Frank, Aaron Hughes, Hunter Jagla, Adam Ladwig)

The 1800 Wing & Second Floor is another later edition, sometime in the early 1990s This portion holds the engineering labs, art studios, media and IT departments, and Continuing Education. It is one of only a couple of portions to have a second floor. It also has the most complicated of exterior patterns.

An Overview of the 1800 Wing.

A nice representation of a half-wall and fenced area that’s used for utility access.

One of the most difficult parts about this section was replicating the brick patterns, which are more complex in this portion than elsewhere on campus. I thought the students did a nice job with something very difficult.

One problem that came from this model is that somehow, somewhere along the line, the group’s scale got out of whack. While the building was built perfectly well to horizontal scale, and perfectly well to vertical scale independently, the horizontal scale didn’t match the vertical scale. I still am unsure what happened there. When the model was stretched out to be horizontally accurate to the other portions of the campus, suddenly the model was about 87% too tall. We were able to remedy that upon assembly with the larger model.


Communication Arts Center and Fieldhouse

(Students: Andrew Mohl, Shawn Kargus)

The CAC & Fieldhouse section holds building portions from two vintages: the fieldhouse, which was installed in the early 1990s, and the CAC, which was completed sometime in 2009. The Fieldhouse is where physical education courses are held and where UWFox’s basketball and volleyball teams compete. The CAC contains a performance hall, black-box theater, art galleries, and other creative spaces.

I know I’m not supposed to play favorites, and I was incredibly impressed with all of my students’ submissions…. but this one, to me, took the cake. It was probably the most challenging of the sections (just ahead of the science wing) but the modeling displayed here is beyond anything that I thought I’d see from this project. And this was a group of two students, one of which was injured and out of commission a good portion of the project.

An Overview of the CAC & Fieldhouse Section.

Notice, thanks to the mid-2000s architectural obsession with random curves, how complex the geometries of this section are. I know they gave this group plenty of headaches.

One thing unique about the design of this section is the “filling” aspect of the shapes. All other sections designed the buildings as solid shapes, while this one only designed the top skin. It’s nothing really positive or negative, just an observation of how there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and they both worked just fine.

The Fieldhouse roof is another set of rooflines that are far more complicated to model than they look. The group did an outstanding job with it, and mentioned on their presentation poster that they were quite proud of it.

A couple of detail notes here. For one, when this group took pictures of the CAC, it was obviously raining. Interesting how that can make a difference. One of the details that I very much liked was the inclusion, whether intentional or not, of the dancing figures sculptures in the photo overlay. It added significant points in the realism aspect.


Overall Results

The students responded very well to the project. Though this was the first geography course many of them had taken, they readily learned and applied the many advanced skills necessary to see the project to its completion. The entire project was slated for a very ambitious six week timeline, and all groups except for one were able to submit a finalized model without any extension of the deadline.

Each groups model was combined with those of the other groups to complete the campus model.  Some of the sections were more generalized, reflecting the limited time frame for the project. Though not perfect, the completed model was crafted to a high quality, enough to warrant submission to Google for inclusion in the Google Earth data stream, which is accessible to anyone who downloads Google Earth.  Below are some previews of the campus model.

Viewing the model from overhead.

Comparing to existing Bing Maps imagery. Note that the CAC isn’t part of the aerial photos.

Alternate viewpoints.

Notice that the 1800 Wing seems a lot shorter once its adjusted to vertical scale.

Nice little synchonicity here, where the Math Lab (part of the Library section) is positioned nicely for the reflection in the windows (part of the Science Wing section).

Geolocated in the Google Earth universe.

When approved, the UWFox campus will join 3D modeled buildings from all over the world submitted by both amateur and professional designers.  UWFox will take its place alongside the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, El Cristo Redentor, Lambeau Field and other landmarks included as part of this widely used geographic information modeling environment.

The students were also required to present their finished models to the school, which we did in the form of a poster presentation in the main hallway. When assigned, several of the students complained that this was an unnecessary component of the project that would just be wasting their time. After the models were complete and after they saw the quality of their own work, they were definitely more interested in showing off their product. UWFox posted some photographs of this presentation in a Facebook gallery of some very proud students showing of their work. Afterwards, a couple of students who had complained earlier about the presentation were gracious for the opportunity to show of their work in a public forum.

To bring the groups together and to show the final product of all of their work, I also created and printed a poster, which I presented alongside them. Any instructor who requires this kind of academic work of students should be willing to do the same, and provide a very tangible demonstration of how it’s supposed to be done. The poster, which replicates a lot of what is seen elsewhere in this post, is also available to view here.

Pedagogical Lessons Learned

The project proved invaluable to students because it provided an interesting and applicable way to learn the many varied skills required to successfully complete GEO 106.  The project was successful enough in both providing a valuable learning experience and generating excitement that it will certainly be used in another form in coming semesters.

When a similar project is assigned in the future, the next class of students will benefit from better planning and more efficient coordination of the project owed to this first experience.  When this project is assigned again, it will be the culmination of a semester specifically designed to develop skills leading to this project.  Future students will benefit from the instructor’s significantly improved skills with Google SketchUp, the primary software program used to model the school.

One major weakness of the project in this iteration is that collaboration remained limited between groups. This is noticeable in the multiple roof colors visible in the final model of the campus. With an extended timeline for completion of the project, students will be able to coordinate better between groups without focusing so intently on simply finishing the group’s responsibility.


Future Applications

Future attempts at using a Google Earth modeling project for GEO 106 could focus on a number of different avenues.  Likely, the next iteration of the course will focus on improving upon the existing model with more intricacy, including the addition of land cover, plants and landscaping, signage and other details.

In addition, this particular project could be used in developing town/gown relationships with various community partners. A similar task to modeling the campus would be modeling the main strips of downtown Neenah or Menasha, in coordination with downtown development boards or the chambers of commerce. A possible opportunity is also under development with the NEW Zoo in Green Bay.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.