A picture paints a thousand words. While photographs can be an excellent resource in teaching and learning, the power of clearly labelled and well-drawn diagrams cannot be understated, write Dr Kevin Nolan, Mairéad O’Reilly and Dr Jennifer Keenahan.

An extension of a diagram – is the concept of an animation. If a diagram or an image is a still shot of one moment in time, an animation is a movie or a film retaining all the benefits of clear and well-drawn diagrams.

During his previous experience in the biotech and telecommunications sectors, Dr Kevin Nolan frequently used images and animations that he created in Blender (open source software) to communicate and illustrate complex concepts.

Since moving to his current academic position in University College Dublin (UCD) he has transformed and adapted these skills to the world of pedagogy. In their January 2020 Newsletter, Dr Nolan wrote for the Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning (EDTL) in Irish Universities Project.

He describes his ambition of providing training materials and helping to create a curated repository of high quality 2D and 3D animations that covers a diverse range of topics, not just fluid mechanics, or science and engineering.

He has created lecture notes as a series of interactive Jupyter notebooks. These incorporate detailed but friendly conversational prose, mathematics, interactive 3D models and state-of-the-art 3D animation of fluid flow. It is an endeavour to make complex technical subjects (such as fluid mechanics) more accessible to a broader range of students.

The notes have been prepared recognising the principles of Universal Design for Instruction in that they are simple and intuitive, require low physical effort and create an instructional climate.

These lecture notes have been shortlisted for this year’s MEDEA Awards, which encourage, recognise and promote excellence in the production and pedagogical design of media-rich learning resources. Some feedback collected from students has been recorded and can be found here

Building on the strength of this project, one of Dr Nolan’s fluid mechanic’s students (Eoghan Phelan) undertook a master’s thesis under his supervision on the use of Blender in statistical modelling with Galton Boards.

This is a great example of problem-based learning where in order to complete the project (or solve the problem), the student developed skills in Python, Blender animation and statistics. Phelan’s thesis was awarded ‘highly commended’ in the category of Engineering in the 2020 Global Undergraduate Awards.

In parallel, in late 2019, Dr Nolan and Mairéad O’Reilly (educational technologist in the College of Engineering and Architecture) each applied for funding from the HEA and the National Forum through UCD’s Learning Enhancement Fund Project.

O'Reilly was awarded funding for her application on ‘Video Production for Online Learning’. Video Production skills are a core requirement for designing and developing meaningful digital learning resources and comprehensive 3D Animations.

Initially the intention was to bring in external expertise to deliver an in-person workshop, however when COVID-19 arrived, O'Reilly adapted to delivering the course herself online in July 2020 to nine participants.

The IUA included a piece on this project in their July 2020 newsletter. The delivery of this course has become even more critical in the advent of COVID-19 with the urgent need for academic staff to pivot to online learning.

Dr Nolan was awarded similar funding for his project 'Digital Animation for Educators Enabling a Library of World Leading Learning Content'.

This funding supported the creation of a training course and the purchase of a high-quality graphics card for rendering animations.

While this training was also planned to be face to face, it was also converted to an online format due to COVID-19. In August 2020, he ran the first delivery of his training supported by his master’s student Eoghan Phelan.

The materials for the course, the live sessions and the out-of-hours support were co-delivered by Phelan and Dr Nolan. This is a wonderful example of the student becoming the teacher.

The course was very much student-centred using a problem-based learning approach. Participants engaged in some formal sessions where animation tools were demonstrated, before spending time on each of their own individual projects. The course was delivered to more than 50 academics across UCD and feedback was extremely positive, as indicated in the figure below. 

Dr Jennifer Keenahan was one of the participants on this course, and as a result has created a series of animations depicting the complex phenomena of wind interactions with bridges which will be used in both her teaching and research. 

In terms of a case study – Dr Keenahan participated on O'Reilly's video production training, following by Dr Nolan’s animation training with no prior knowledge or background in either skill.

Having completed both courses, she has now gone on to create several videos and animations of her work which can be seen here. This demonstrates clearly how these two skills of video production and animation naturally dovetail together.


Dr Kevin Nolan is an assistant professor at the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at University College Dublin where he lectures in fluid mechanics. Dr Nolan has considerable industrial experience in the biotech and telecommunications sectors where he developed microfluidic and optofluidic technologies. He is a specialist in optical techniques for measuring fluid flow such as Particle Image Velocimetry and Schlieren imaging. 

Jennifer Keenahan is an assistant professor and Chartered Engineer in Civil Engineering at University College Dublin. She has practised as an engineer with Arup where her specialties were in bridge engineering and computational fluid dynamics for the built environment. She is the head of teaching and learning for civil engineering at UCD and has recently completed a professional diploma in higher education. 

Mairéad O’Reilly is an educational technologist in the College of Engineering and Architecture at UCD and a live sound engineer. Having completed her master's degree in digital media technologies, she lectured full time for five years on sound technology at the University of South Wales. Mairéad has also delivered master classes in audio to final year film students at TU Dublin and supported recording voiceovers and audio post-production for music and film. She has extensive experience as a technical officer supporting electronics, physics, audio and digital media technologies. More recently, she has moved into Education and has been actively involved in online learning, designing and developing content for online delivery.