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Animation with PowerPoint
by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)

Picture this:

Mr. Jackson, teacher of 11th-grade U.S. History, wants to show the great westward movement of the population during the first half of the 19th century. He wants his students to develop in their minds a graphical image of the spread and sweep of people from the East Coast settlements across the mountains to the Midwest. He's got the census figures, and the maps, but he needs a way to make them appear dynamic and memorable.

Group #6 had completed its dissection, and faced the task of documenting their findings. The digital photos they took at various phases of the process were all ready, but these were quite general, showing the entire frog. The assignment called for the isolation and identification of certain very specific parts of the amphibian. How could they show this most accurately in their report?

Triangles, squares, circles: she had repeated this lesson with her second-graders over many years on the chalkboard, building each shape from its constituent lines. But once was not enough. Many of her students needed to see the construction over and over again, if they were to remember. How could she publish this process in such a way that students could access it whenever they wanted?

Three very different classrooms all faced a similar challenge: how to represent certain important curriculum concepts in a graphic and dynamic manner, to aid in students' understanding and effective presentation. In an earlier article we discussed how to use Macromedia Flash to build animations, but Flash is beyond the scope of these folks, takes a bit of time to learn, and is not available on their computers. But all three have PowerPoint, and for them it might be just the tool they need to construct their simple animations.

Users of PowerPoint tend to focus on two kinds of presentations: bulleted text, and slide shows of images. But PowerPoint contains some simple drawing tools and animation capabilities that allow it to be pressed into service for projects like these. PowerPoint is part of the Microsoft Office suite of programs that is widely available in schools, on both Windows and Macintosh platforms. And its animation capabilities are easy to use. This week's article gets you started using PowerPoint to create and present a simple animation.

Plan your Work

Take a piece of blank paper. Orient it sideways, the same shape as the computer display. Sketch what you want to see on the screen: titles, images, graphics, and so forth.

Group #6 sketched the photo of the frog on the right, taking up about half the paper, with the labels of the various organs appearing on the left, and then arrows leading from the labels to the organs in the photo. Their plan was to have these labels and arrows appear one by one as they presented their oral report.

Mr. Jackson drew a big map of the U.S. covering most of the paper, with the title Westward Expansion in big letters at the top. Then he sketched a growing blob of population, with lines showing where the frontier moved every ten years.

The second-grade teacher sketched the triangle on the left third of the paper, the square in the middle, and the circle on the right, each with their label on top in big letters.

When you plan, you need to consider two things: placement and order. The placement shows where the various items will appear, in such a way so they all fit and the meaning is clear. The order of appearance determines when they appear, so that they tell a story. Planning on a paper that's about the same size and shape of the computer display lets you see also how big each element needs to be. (For example, a 2-inch frog would not show enough detail, but a 12-inch frog would not fit on the screen.)

Prepare the Raw Materials

From your sketch, it should be clear what you need to create your animation. Mr. Jackson needs an outline map of the US, about 8" wide. The dissectors need to crop and shrink their digital photo to be about 6" high and 4" wide. The second grade teacher will build her shapes using PowerPoint's drawing tools, and so needs no raw materials from outside (though some photos of these three shapes in nature: beach balls, pyramids, and windows, for instance might make an interesting introductory slide for the lesson).

Mr. Jackson might find his map (and the second-grade teacher her pictures) in a clip art collection, on the Web, or scanned from a book. Group #6 needs to get the photo from the camera into the computer. Once located and saved, they need to be sized properly to fit the plan. In many cases the scanning or camera software allows you to save the image at various sizes, choosing one that best fits your plan. You may save the raw materials as files on your disk (which you will later import into PowerPoint), or you may keep them in view on the screen ready to be copied (and then pasted into PowerPoint.)

Build in Orderr

Launch PowerPoint. Create a blank slide, nothing on it. You'll build the animation on this slide, one piece at a time. Avoid fancy backgrounds and decorations -- in most cases these distract from the educational content.

Place your items on the slide one at a time, in the order that you want them to appear in the animation. This is important. The frog students first imported their photo, using Insert -- Picture -- From File from the menubar. Then they moved it to the right, as they had planned. Mr. Jackson copied his outline map from his Web browser, and then pasted it onto the PowerPoint slide.

All three of our cases then added a title to their slide, using Insert -- Text Box from the menubar. They dragged out a box, and then typed Frog Dissection, Group 6 or Westward Expansion or Shapes into the box. By selecting the text in the box, and using Format -- Font from the menubar, each adjusted the title text to fit their plan.

Now comes the second-step element, the item that will appear next in order. For the dissectors, it's the first label, heart, which they typeinto a text box, size, and position on the slide. For Mr. Jackson, it's the first wave of settlement, which he draws with the PowerPoint freeform tool. And for the 2nd grade geometers, it's the base line of the triangle, drawn with the PowerPoint line tool.

Drawing tools

Can't find these drawing tools on your PowerPoint? Choose View -- Toolbars -- Drawing from the menubar. On this toolbar, the arrow is the tool that lets you select an item on the slide. The capital A is the tool that lets you create a text box and type into it. You will also find a line tool, a rectangle tool, a tool full of shapes, and a box full of special tools including arrows and freeform shapes.

Before constructing your graphic item, play around with these tools. Create a new blank slide and draw something with each tool, so you can see how it works. For most of the tools, you select the tool, then click and drag on the slide to draw it. Once drawn, you can change its size and color with the size and color tools on the drawing toolbar.

Add the elements you need, in the order you want them to appear. When you are done, the slide should appear as it will when the animation is complete. Mr. Jackson drew five separate shapes with the freeform tool, one on top of the next, representing the spread of population in each of the census periods 1800 - 1840. The students in Group #6 entered six labels and six arrows. And the second grade teacher created seven lines, one auto shape circle, and three labels.


If you show this slide, using Slide Show -- View Show from the menubar, you will see all the elements at once. What you need to do is animate them so they appear one at a time. Here's how:

  1. Select the item you want to appear first. In most cases, this is the title, or the background item. Use the arrow tool from the drawing toolbar to make this selection.
  2. Choose Slide Show -- Animations from the menubar.
  3. From the drop-down menu, select how you want the item to appear. It can fly in, crawl in, wipe across, dissolve in, or simply appear.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 for the rest of the elements. Make sure you follow the desired order.
  5. When all the items have been animated, test the slide by choosing Slide Show -- View Show from the menubar. Click the mouse to move from step to step.


Your animation can be presented at the front of the class as a demonstration, or left available on a learning station for the students to work through. The PowerPoint file can be emailed to someone else, copied onto a CD-ROM or memory stick, and even placed on a web server and linked to a Web page. Because so many people have PowerPoint on their computers, your work can be made widely available.

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