If you go back a few years (hey, let’s not say how many), you’ll remember one of the best tools for 3D illustration on the Mac was Bryce. You could create amazingly realistic 3D landscapes and animations with a simple drag and drop interface. You could plop in trees, adjust the sun angle, and do all sorts of cool things. Reflections and textures that PhotoShop still can’t do were easy in Bryce. Time passed and the software changed publisher hands a few times and now belongs to Daz Productions, which specializes in 3D modeling software.
Good news – they have made Bryce version 5.5 for Mac OSX completely free to download. Given that many students want to produce art and animation like they see in their favorite games and movies, this could be something that would spark interest in many students. The program comes with a huge library of samples and tutorials and is really perfect for a beginner with an interest in 3D.
TechRepublic has a nice pros/cons summary of the tool and download links.
The Daz Productions website also has many free samples and a community forum. I would guess that most high school students could easily use this program, as well as some motivated middle school students. (By the way, check out the site before sending students. This is not a specifically educational site, and more than a few of the 3D models are either super gun-endowed robots or super-endowed females. I didn’t see anything you wouldn’t see on prime-time TV, but fair warning.)