Skip To Main Content

3-D Campus

In all likelihood, we will soon see the day when the entire world exists within Google Earth. Your house, your street, your favorite coffee shop, – everything will be online for you to explore in three dimensions.

Ohio Northern University is staking claim to its Google Earth future through the development of its own 3-D campus.

In spring 2011, Dr. Harry “Jimmy” Wilson, professor of geography, assigned a new class project in his geographic information systems (GIS) course. The goal was to learn GIS principles by creating three-dimensional renderings of campus buildings.


Now, 18 months later, what began with a solitary campus icon, Hill Building, is looking more and more like the real thing. To date, Wilson’s students have created 28 buildings, which have been approved by Google for inclusion in Google Earth.

“One of the biggest challenges for me as a geography professor is not only how to engage the students that I have, but also how to bolster enrollment and promote geography,” says Wilson. “Building our campus in Google Earth is a very visible way to show people what GIS is.”

GIS is everywhere in the modern, smartphone age. Any time tabular attribute information is correlated to a mapped geographic location, GIS is at work. Common uses of GIS include looking up the address or phone number of a business on an online map, in-car turn-by-turn navigation and even hurricane-path projections.

As the use of GIS is spreading, so are the opportunities to contribute data. Software giant Google offers many free software programs that allow people all over the world to contribute to a global information bank. Wilson’s class used two such products, Google Earth and SketchUp, to build Northern’s digital campus.

Google Earth is an exhaustive digital globe layered with GIS functionality. SketchUp is a user-friendly, three-dimensional modeling program. Used in concert, these tools allow ONU students to create 3D buildings and share them with the world.

Wilson let his students pick the building he or she wanted to model, encouraging them to start simple.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he’s quick to point out.

Completed buildings in Google Earth

  • 5 University Parkway
  • Alumni House
  • Chapel/Burgett
  • Delta Sigma Phi
  • Dial-Roberson Stadium
  • Dicke
  • Dukes
  • Science complex-Pharmacy, Mathile, Meyer, Science Annex and Biggs
  • Founders complex-Founders, Park and Maglott
  • Heterick Library
  • Hill
  • Lakeview apartments
  • Law building
  • Lehr
  • Lima complex-Lima, Roberts and Brookheart
  • Northern House
  • Observatory
  • Phi Mu Delta
  • President's House
  • Presser
  • Radio shed/tower
  • Sigma Pi
  • Taft
  • Weber
  • Wilson art building

Creating a 3-D building model is a process. First, students take photographs of their building. The photographs are important for two reasons: They give the modeler a visual reference to base the model on, and, once the building’s shape is established, they are applied to the corresponding surfaces, becoming the building’s “skin.”

In SketchUp, the modeler begins with simple two-dimensional drawing tools to draw the basic footprint of the building from simple geometric shapes. A tool is then used to pull the shape upwards into the z-axis. This is what gives the object its third dimension. These steps are repeated as necessary until the structure resembles the building in its shape. It is only then that the photos are applied to the surfaces.

SketchUp provides many different increments of measure, enabling modelers to use the same program to build a perfectly scaled dollhouse or the Empire State Building. Google takes measuring very seriously. Once a building is completed, it is uploaded to Google for approval, where it is compared to Google’s own satellite imagery. The slightest error in proportion or location will result in rejection.

Dawn DeColibus, a senior biology major from Strongsville, Ohio, was a sophomore in that spring 2011 class. Having shown a knack for 3-D modeling with her rendering of the ONU Observatory, Wilson hired DeColibus as a federal work-study student to continue refining buildings that had been rejected by Google after the course ended. She fixed and submitted a majority of the ONU buildings currently in Google Earth.

“It feels awesome to contribute something like this on behalf of the University,” she says. “These buildings are only going to be created once.”

DeColibus became interested in GIS when she began to see it mentioned in her field biology courses. GIS is used heavily in the study of the spatial distribution of organisms. After taking Wilson’s class and continuing on with the project, she even added a GIS minor. However, she’s still a biologist at heart and knows her unique experience will benefit her career.

“I don’t know if I can create 3-D renderings of algae, but learning these skills will help me. I had an internship at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and I was able to use GIS to map where the sample sites we were studying were located,” she says. “It wasn’t Google SketchUp per se, but it was still GIS and still helpful to our project.”

Ask Wilson about the demand for GIS data and his eyes get big. In an interconnected world, GIS is what often connects us.

“There is this huge global network that is evolving alongside the technology,” he says.

Virtually every sector of the global economy and every government is interested in what GIS can tell them. As the tools make it easier to compile and share data, more people will be needed to provide it.

Here at Northern, students are being trained in all facets of GIS.

In his applied GIS course each spring, Wilson picks a different project for his students. The first was to map the emergency phones located on campus. At the end of the course, the class gave the interactive map to ONU’s security department, vastly increasing the information needed to make the campus even safer. Last spring, Wilson’s class did a GIS project to map the trees in the village of Ada. It was an offshoot of another class project that looked at the trees on campus.

“When the ice storm came through in 2005 and did a lot of damage, the University only had a list of trees. We didn’t even have locations,” says Wilson. “So we recorded the species of tree, its dimensions, whether or not it had mulching around it, things like that. Now we have this information, which is crucial for things you may not ever realize, like budgeting. Water, mulch, the time of physical plant employees: It all costs money.”

GIS allows people, businesses and even universities to work smarter. More often than not, however, the science is in the background, stored on a database in one part of the world and served up on a computer screen somewhere else. By doing a project like the 3-D campus, GIS is taking center stage in a very exciting show.

“I just think it’s cool that a high school student somewhere that might be thinking of coming to school here can ‘walk’ around campus and see what it’s like here,” says DeColibus. “I remember when I was a freshman and didn’t know my way around campus. I printed out a map that I carried with me. Now, I could use Google Earth instead, and it would be a lot easier and certainly a lot cooler.”

To download Google Earth for your computer, visit