Animal Museum

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An example of an animal museum plaque. This particular piece depicts the skin of a salmon.

Learning Objective

Students examine evolutionary traits of biology through 3D modeling, fabrication, and research. Concepts such as navigating in 3D space, sculpting on digital clay, and working from references are explored. Students will create their own interactive museum exhibit pieces based on an animal of their choosing. A strong emphasis on research is also present as students will give presentations on their piece and lead a deduction game where other students make guesses to what animal is depicted based only on the texture sample and what clues they can gather from it.

The final piece is a 60mm x 60mm 3D printed texture sample (fur, scales, claws, etc.) of the chosen animal mounted on a plaque with hand-written or typed biological information pertaining to the texture/structure chosen.

Estimated Length

4-5 hours class time + fabrication time


For each student:

  • (4x) ½ - ¾ inch paired pieces of temporary mounting materials, such as:
    • Velcro dots or strips with adhesive backing
    • Magnetic Tape with adhesive backing
  • 150mm x 150mm cut posterboard square (1x)
    • used for mounting 3D print to
    • size is recommended but adjustable
  • 150mm x 60mm cut posterboard piece (1x)
    • used for covering animal info
    • size is recommended but adjustable
  • Computer with internet access (1x)
  • Computer mouse (1x)

For each class:

  • Various paints, brushes, markers, paint pens, glue sticks, etc. for decoration
  • Your choice of mounting materials for display of projects (if mounted on a wall)
  • Access to document printer (optional)

Overview of Activity Steps:

  1. Students research an animal of their choosing and select a feature of that animal.
  2. Students explore using the sculpting tools of the SculptGL online application.
  3. Students use SculptGL to create a 3D model of the selected feature.
  4. 3D print the models.
  5. Students color their models.
  6. Mount the models on posterboard or wood (laser cutting optional activity) and add animal information.
  7. Exhibit the projects through oral presentations and/or in a gallery.

Setup & Planning

  1. Intro the project and show examples of how interactive tactile exhibit pieces like the ones they will be making are used in museums and zoos and allow patrons to experience the animal without having to touch the real thing. (example: California Academy of Sciences “Skin: Living Armor, Evolving Identity” exhibit)
  2. Have students choose an animal. Prompt them by asking them to think of an interesting looking animal with unique features (scales, fur, claws, eyes, etc.). The students will be tasked with researching the animal and replicating the chosen feature in 3D!
  3. Have students research their animal. Researched information will go on the physical piece below the animal’s name. See the research areas below for some ideas:
    • Describe the chosen structure
    • What is the animal’s diet
    • Where does the animal live?
    • How does the structure that will be 3D printed help the animal survive?
  4. Find a way to distribute the software link below to all students. You can send it in an email, post to Google Classroom, etc.
    • SculptGL (
  5. Create a Google Drive folder (or similar online setup) and share access to all the students. This is where they will upload their finished files for printing. Alternatively, you can simply use a USB stick and go around to each student to collect their final file.
  6. It is a good idea for you to take some time and play with the 3D sculpting software linked above so you have some experience. It is a very fun program! You basically sculpt clay like you would in art class, but digitally! It may look intimidating but for this project, we are only going to focus on a few features. This video  (  is a very good brief intro to the program. Students will only need to use a few program options, so do not worry about most features beyond the  sculpting tools.
  7. For a full introduction to SculptGL, see the TinkRworks SculptGL guide.



Introduce the project! You can bring in a ball of clay and demonstrate that they will be sculpting, but in a new way – digitally! Show off the software and utilize some of the tools as outlined in the SculptGL guide. You can also have kids come up one at a time to make a few marks on the digital clay for the whole class.

Importing an image as a background in SculptGL to use as a reference.

It is a good idea to give students a class period or two to play around in SculptGL and get a feel for how to move around before you actually have them start their animal texture samples. It can be difficult for students to navigate (zoom, spin around, etc.) in 3D with a touchpad. Computer mice are preferred.

Refer to the SculptGL Guide for a full breakdown of important tools that are particularly useful for this project.

Note: SculptGL does NOT auto-save! Students  must save their sculpture files to continue  editing or to submit them to you for 3D printing.

  • “Files” - “Save .sgl” will save a file that they can open in SculptGL to continue editing.
  • “Files” - “Save .stl” will save an STL file that will be used to 3D print the object. (Use this type when they are finished editing and are ready to print!)


  1. It is a good idea to give students a class period or two to play around in SculptGL and get a feel for how to move around. It can be difficult for students to navigate (zoom, spin around, etc.) in 3D with a touchpad, hence why computer mice are preferred. See the “SculptGL Guide.doc” for helpful tips.
  2. For initial practice, instruct them with a challenge if desired. Have them create a face out of a sphere of clay using the different Sculpting Tools.
  3. Once the students are done experimenting with a sphere of digital clay, switch to a cube for the final project.
    1. Go to “Scene” - “Clear Scene”. and then, “Scene”- “Add Cube”. This will make a cube appear on the workspace.
  4. Allow the students to begin to sculpt their animal texture. Tell them to choose just one side of the cube to sculpt on.
  5. Students can bring in a reference image to help them recreate their animal’s texture. Working from a reference is a great tool that 3D designers often use. Have the students use a web browser search to find and save an image of their animal’s feature. Have them upload the image by going to “Background” - “Import”. Checking “Fill” will fill the entire background with the image. Unchecking this option will just load in an image in the center. Have them click “Reset” to clear the image.

Fig 1abc.png

6. Go over the following suggestions for their models:

  • Do not sculpt too high off the side of the cube. (Fig 1a & 1b) You do not want the projects to be too thick where it will take a long time to print. For example, if a student wants to sculpt the teeth of their animal, instruct them to do a side view instead of having the teeth jetting up and off the cube.

  • Additionally, you want to maintain the square edges of the cube. (Figure 1b) Instruct students to keep their sculpting towards the center of the cube and not to sculpt over the edges. A little bit of deformation at the edges is acceptable, but too much hanging over the edges will make 3D printing difficult. Additionally, deforming the edges of the cube will detract from the actual sculpting at the center. For students doing the surface texture of their animal (scales, fur, etc.), they can certainly fill the side of the cube with sculpting but do not go over the sides.

Fig 3. A model in SculptGL with masking applied. Click the “Clear” button under the "Masking" drop-down menu to remove any dark shadows on the model.

  • Masking is a concept we will not be using for the project. (Figure 3) Masking selects part of your model and makes it un-editable which can be very useful in advanced projects. You may see the “Masking” tool in the tool drop-down. Instruct students not to use it; however, sometimes a student may accidentally apply a mask. If you happen to see a dark shadow on your student’s project or the whole piece has gone dark, click on “Masking” in the tool drop-down and then click on the button marked “Clear” to get rid of the mask.

  1. if a class session is nearing completion, or a student has completed their model, make sure the students save their models as outlined in the “Procedure: Intro” section. An .stl file is what is needed to 3D print.
  2. The file will download to the student’s “Downloads” folder on their computer as “YourMesh.stl”. For file organization and ease of printing, instruct the students to rename the file as “Studentname_animal.stl” so you can keep track of student work. If students are too young to manage this, go around to each student’s computer and rename it for them.
  3. Collect the .stl files by instructing the students to upload them to an online file storage folder or by going around to each student and saving it to a USB flash drive.

File Preparation & Printing

  1. Once you have received each student’s file, it is time to resize and slice the models down for 3D printing. If your students are proficient in TinkerCad and have accounts, you can demonstrate this step and have them do it along with you. If not, you will need repeat these steps for each file.
  2. Create a new design in TinkerCad. Import the .stl file into TinkerCad by clicking the “Import” button at the top right and selecting your .stl file.
  3. In the pop-up window, choose millimeters for the unit of measurement of the SculptGL file. Click “Import”.
  4. Depending on the complexity of the model, it could take several minutes to appear.
  5. Once the model appears, rotate it if needed so that the sculpted side is facing up by using the curved double-sided arrows you see when you click the model.
  6. Click the white box at any corner of the cube. Measurements will show up. (Figure 4a) Type 60 (mm) into each of the two measurements. If you are not in inches mode, click on “Settings” on the lower right of the window. You can also increase the size of the blue Workplane in the Settings if you need to.
  7. Next, drag out a transparent box from the basic tools on the right. (Figure 4b) Make it large enough to cut off the bottom of the cube. The height of the cube is what is important here. Decide how thick you want each sample to be (a final print with thickness of 25-45mm is ideal). In the example shown, the cube is 35mm tall. Write that down if you want all the texture samples to be around the same height.
  8. Select both the transparent box and the texture cube (by holding Shift or dragging a square around both). Use the Grouping tool (or press “Ctrl” and “G” keys) to group them together. You should have now trimmed off the part of the box that you do not want. (Figure 4c) You are left with the side of the cube that has the sculpting on it. Press "D" on the keyboard to drop the model down to the blue workplane. Rename the TinkerCad file as “Studentname_animal_DONE” by clicking on the TinkerCad file name at the top left.
  9. Click “Export” and then “STL” when the window pops up and the file will be downloaded to the “Downloads” folder on the computer.
  10. Do this for all student files, organize them, and 3D print them!  (You will have to prepare the stl file for printing using another program.)

Decoration and Assembly

  1. Once printed, allow the students a few class periods to paint and decorate the 3D prints. Acrylic paints and paint pens work great on 3D prints.
    Examples of student work after decoration and assembly.
  2. Give each student two pieces of poster board or wood: a 150mm x 150mm piece and a 150mm x 60mm piece. The large piece is what the 3D print will be attached to. The smaller piece will hide the animal’s name and information so a guessing game can be played. Have the students write the animal’s name and information at the bottom of the poster board under where the 3D print will attach. Make sure the writing is small enough to be covered up by the smaller piece of poster board. Alternatively, you can use a laser cutter to engrave the animal information on the larger piece.
  3. Have students decorate the smaller piece of poster board/wood. They can write “What Animal am I?” or whatever they choose as long as it does not give away the identity of their animal.
  4. To assemble the final pieces, attach your temporary mounting material to the texture sample and the larger poster board. This creates a non-permanent display so the samples can be passed around if you do not have space to mount the plaques on a wall.
  5. Next, attach your temporary mounting material to the bottom part of the poster board where the animal’s info is and to the smaller poster board. Reference the image on the first page for an example of the assembly.
    A student takes part in the guessing game during the animal museum exhibit. Students can make deductions about what animal is depicted using what they know about adaptive traits.
  6. Finally, have your museum exhibition opening. Allow for a tactile guessing game and afterwards have the students present on their animal.

Tips & Tricks

  • When 3D printing, make sure the models are flat on the build plate with the sculpted detail facing upwards. They shouldn’t need any support material or a raft. Print a few at a time.
  • It is helpful to place a Post-it note on the bottom of each print with the student’s name after the print finishes. This way, handing them back for painting will be much easier.
  • You can extend this activity into typography and graphic design by having the students use word processing for their animal’s name and information. They could include a photo example of the animal. If you have access to a simple paper printer, you can print these out and glue them to the poster board instead of having them write this info with markers. Challenge them to find an aesthetically pleasing font that is easy to read. Work with them on composition and typing skills!
  • If the models haven’t finished printing before your next class period, have the students work on and practice their presentations. You can also have them plan out how they will paint the texture samples.
  • Before presentations take place at the exhibition opening (should you choose to have one), have the students play a guessing game with the plaques. Leaving the “What Animal am I?” plaques over the information, have students feel the samples and guess what animal is depicted. They can also make guesses as to if the animal is a carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore and can deduct where the animal may live. This game and discussion can illuminate how animals evolved to live in their respective habitats. Also, it’s a ton of fun! Invite other grades and classes to participate as they did not see the project happen and therefore will have no idea who chose what animal!


This project was developed in partnership with The Avery Coonley School. Special thanks to their wonderful faculty and staff for their continued collaboration.

Additional Resources

Interested in more STEAM Project-based Learning resources? TinkRworks K-8 supplemental curriculum makes it simple to add hands-on STEAM education to your school. Learn more:

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