New effort lets students, researchers use 3-D models of bones, artifacts for remote research

Physical bones and other artifacts hold valuable clues about past civilizations or ancient animals, but those resources aren’t always available or might be too fragile to be handled routinely. Now, work by Stanford University Libraries to scan artifacts in three dimensions is bringing the experience of handling those physical objects to the computer screens of students or researchers working across the world.

In a pilot project, the library’s Digital Production Group has scanned almost 100 animal bones and bone fragments for Krish Seetah, assistant professor of anthropology, who used the 3-D models for the first time during his course Zooarchaeology: An Introduction to Faunal Remains in the 2017 winter quarter.

“The 3-D model doesn’t replace the original, but it gives you a digital surrogate to make analysis, evaluation, instruction on those objects easier both in the classroom and at home,” said Stuart Snydman, associate director for digital strategy at Stanford Libraries, who is leading the 3-D scanning effort. “Digitization is one way we can not just preserve our heritage and our history but also make these really important objects or works of art available to our students and faculty and researchers in the world at large.”

Improving learning

The venture into 3-D scanning started around 2014, when Seetah received a Hoagland Award grant from Stanford’s Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning.

Seetah, who has been teaching a class on zooarchaeology for more than 12 years, said he has always been on the lookout for how to improve his students’ learning experiences. Working closely with Claudia Engel, the Libraries’ academic technology specialist for anthropology, Seetah wanted to take advantage of 3-D scanning because of how prevalent and inexpensive the technology has become in recent years. Previously, Seetah and Engel worked together to integrate tablet computers and digital notebooks into Seetah’s teaching. Exploring 3-D technology was a natural next step.

“The ideal situation would be for each one of my students to take an entire skeleton home and study it, but that’s just not realistic because of the fragility and limitations of the collection,” Seetah said. “Before, I used photographs, and two dimensions versus three is a completely different situation.”

Giving access to 3-D models of fragile archaeological remains through a seamless database improves students’ learning experience but also can help researchers working at remote sites if they need a fast reference point, Seetah said.

Remote access

As part of Seetah’s class, students have to memorize bones of different animals in such a way that they could identify a bone just from its fragment. The students also learn to distinguish specific grooves and marks on those bones to determine if an animal experienced trauma during its life.

Graduate student Ryan Merritt took Seetah’s class in the 2017 winter quarter, when the professor first piloted the use of 3-D models.

Students could pull up the 3-D models digitized by the Libraries on a computer screen or a tablet through a special platform, then rotate or annotate those images.

Merritt said the 3-D models helped him learn the course material without needing to be in the lab for long hours working with physical bones.

“The models give you all of the angles,” he said. “And for someone who was learning about these artifacts for the first time, that was really useful.”

Taking Seetah’s class also made Merritt think about the future application of 3-D scanning, which could be used to share the resources and artifacts Stanford has via virtual databases with the rest of the world.

“I think we’re lucky to have access to all the things that Stanford has,” Merritt said. “Being able to let other universities and scholars across the world have access to our resources would be super valuable.”

That same idea is also on the minds of the staff at the Libraries. Snydman said he hopes to expand the Libraries’ existing 3-D scanning efforts and make those digitized materials easily available through the Stanford Digital Repository to scholars across the world.

Seetah said he encourages Stanford faculty in other disciplines who could find 3-D models helpful during teaching, such as cell biology and architecture, to partner with the Libraries on the 3-D scanning project.

“This is not being done to coddle the students,” Seetah said. “It’s all about finding ways to make sure we are responsive to how students learn best in today’s digital environment.”

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