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3D: It’s Not Just for Movie Theaters

Jim Lane is talking about something that has been on the mind of a lot of education researchers lately. If you read much in the way of education literature at all, I am sure you will have run across many a discussion of how to improve learning by engaging the students with materials they find interesting and challenging them to solve relevant problems in a creative manner. Doing that means moving beyond the simple worksheets and memorization. It means using the newly available tools to bring the material to life and having the students work on, as one of Mr. Lane’s students called it, the edge of science.

Some of those new tools are in the realm of 3D scanning and modelling. This has allowed many museums and researchers to put some of their work online in a way that allows much more interaction than simple photos. You can, for instance, examine the head of a 2,200-year-old Chinese terracotta warrior housed at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum or skeletons in an underwater cave from the comfort of your own home. This has great benefits for conservation and research, allowing digital preservation of fragile artifacts and researchers from all over the world to view the objects without having to spend the money to physically examine them. Much of the time, researchers will still want to see the real thing, but there are numerous studies that can be done with only the scanned images. There is even some research that can only be done on the scanned items, making the scans in a way, more important than the item itself. More to the point here, 3D scanning also opens up the object to viewing by people the world over, the vast majority of whom will never have the chance to visit the museum and see the real item.

So where can you see some of these items? There are several places on the net you can go. Here we will focus on those useful for evolutionary topics, such as fossils and anatomy (comparative anatomy with modern organisms is the heart of paleontological research). Many of the sites allow you to download the scans and print them out if you have access to a 3D printer, which are becoming increasingly common as the prices drop down to the point many individuals can buy their own and schools are starting to make them available to their students. Be warned, interactive 3D elements generally take a lot of graphics computation, so try to limit any other graphics you have up, i.e. close other browser windows, don’t try running a game in the background, the general rules of using a program with a lot of graphics. But as long as you have an up-to-date browser with Quicktime and Java, most computers these days should be able to handle it just fine (although a warning about Java, the security updates in the past year or so have made the more recent versions of java incompatible with earlier versions, so unless the developer for the site has updated their program, it may not work).

The following sites are in no particular order, so with that in mind, the first place on this list you might want to visit is Smithsonian X 3D, a website the Smithsonian recently put up showcasing objects from their collection they have scanned. At the moment, there is not a lot, but the site is new and they will be adding much more as they go along, so be sure to check back regularly. Right now, you can see 3D images of whale fossils, a mammoth, a blue crab, an orchid, a bee, and several other historical objects. Included in the collection is a scan of President Obama, the first ever 3D Presidential portrait. The basic 3D viewer is easy to use, although a few of the more advanced controls are not altogether intuitive. The website provides a brief description of each item, along with articles and videos on some of the items and the process of scanning them, including a page for educators on the use of the objects in the classroom. The Smithsonian also has more 3D collections on their human origins site. You might think that they would only have human fossils, but they have much more. You can certainly find hominid fossils, but along with them are numerous primates from Aye-Ayes to gorillas, and a large variety of other animals, from bears and cheetahs to komodo dragons and vultures. While you are there, you can a diverse array of information on human evolution, including teacher guides, lesson plans, multimedia, current research, everything you need to teach a human origins unit.

Another place you will want to check out is the Visual Interactive Anatomy pages by Dr. Lawrence Witmer at Ohio University. He and his students spend a lot of time scanning fossils and modern animals using a medical CT scanner at nearby O’Bleness Hospital or a micro-CT scanner on campus. They have put together several pages that illustrate the anatomy of several modern animals, including an opossum and the heads of a human, rhino, iguana, alligator hatchling, and ostrich. They have also collaborated with Dr. Casey Holliday on an adult alligator. The adult alligator page even has individual pages for every bone in the skull. On these pages, you will find interactive 3D pdfs and videos of the scans and reconstructions, which have a variety of structures labeled, identifying the bones, brain cavity, nasal passages, etc. In addition, you will find news and behind the scenes excerpts, and links to the published research on the specimens. On the 3D Visualizations page, you will find similar movies and 3D pdfs for a variety of dinosaurs (including Tyrannosaurus rex, Majungasaurus, and Euoplocephalus, along with several birds) and mammals from the platypus to deer to Archaeotherium, one of the group of animals often called “terror pigs”.

A website that is sure to grow is the NIH 3D Print Exchange. This site allows people to share their own 3D files for other people to download and use. The website focuses on biomedical applications, but currently you can find a variety of brains, bones, molecules, DIY lab equipment, and more. The more part I am sure will grow as people explore the site and add their own models. You can also find tutorials for making your own 3D models using 3D visualization software, and links to open source software such as Blender, FreeCAD, and Google Sketchup, as well as 3D printing services such as i.materialize and Makexyz and others.

Digimorph, or more properly Digital Morphology, a National Science Foundation Digital Library, is a site run by the CT facility at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the premier CT facilities in the country and the primary place American paleontologists go to get their fossils scanned. Digimorph provides access to these scans for the public and researchers the world over. On this site, you can find videos of scans and 3D reconstructions, some of which can be downloaded for 3D printing, for hundreds of animals, including a variety of avian and non-avian dinosaurs, along with extinct and modern species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even plants, coral,  crustaceans and other invertebrates. Along with the scans and 3D reconstructions, you can find descriptions of each specimen, a bibliography of research published on them, and links to useful sites for software, information on CT scanning, and other related sites. The downside to the site is they provide nothing specific for educators and the specimens that have downloadable 3D renderings are a small fraction of the total specimens available in video form, and none of them of the dinosaurs, which are only available as video animations. Nevertheless, for sheer quantity of 3D images for a diversity of animals, there is no place better.

The final site on the list is swiftly becoming the place to go for virtual fossils.GB3D Type Fossils Online project, or simply GB3D, is a website run by the British Geological Survey, Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales), Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. As the name suggests, the site is a repository for information of “type” fossils. If you don’t know what a “type” is, they have a handy guide explaining the different types. In this case, they aren’t talking about what kind of fossil it is, but things like holotypes, fossils designated in the original description of the fossil, which all others are compared to, which make them very important to scientists studying those kinds of fossils. If you want to see United Kingdom fossils, this is the place to go. They have hundreds of fossils in 3D and hundreds more in 2D. On this site, you will find a great diversity of plants and animals with high quality photographs, many of them also have stereophotos (get your 3D glasses with those red and blue lenses) and 3D models. In addition, you will find information about the fossil, such as what it is, when and where it was collected, how old it is, and contact information for the institution that holds the fossil itself. They also have a page describing the more commonly found fossils, all of which happen to be various invertebrates or fish. You will also find free programs used to view and work with 3D images you can download. They have available MeshLab, SPIERSview, and Adobe 3D Pdf Reader. Finally, you will also find links to a variety of educational resources for primary and secondary schools, universities, and the public.

Hang gliding in the Oauchita Mtns. Photo by

Hang gliding in the Oauchita Mtns. Photo by

If you want to inspire people to learn, you have to bring them right up to the edge of that knowledge cliff so they can peer over it at the wondrous space beyond, exposing them to the unknown in all its glorious mystery. Help them understand the foundations of the cliff, teach them how to build their own wings, and then push them off that cliff so they can soar into uncharted regions. When they return, they will have a better grasp of how the cliff is formed and what its boundaries are. They just might also find that cliff sticking out a little farther than when they flew off it. And when they do, you won’t have to push them, they will leap on their own. Of course, you will then have another problem: keeping up with your students. So keep your own wings in good repair. I do hope I have helped you build your wings a little stronger. If you know of any other sites that may be of use, please let us know in the comments section.

I will let Dr. Witmer finish this out and let him explain a bit about his projects and why approaches like this, particularly with dinosaurs, are useful educational tools.


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