Fossil casts, bones, bone casts, and artifacts – these are the precious elements of hands-on learning for anthropology, archeology, paleontology, and forensic science students. But when in-class learning is cancelled, how do you move essential lab experience online?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Toronto faculty across all departments had to find creative ways to redesign courses and ensure students could continue their education successfully online. Carolyn Loos, Manager of the Department of Anthropology and Forensic Science at University of Toronto Mississauga, said her department faculty first considered ways to teach small groups of students in-person.
“We realized the logistical challenges of maintaining proper distancing and cleaning would be too great, considering the need for students to handle and study delicate specimens.”
To start the shift to online, assistant professor of anthropology Dr. Lauren Schroeder and her teaching assistant began searching online for a set of quality digital 3D models of specimens they could use in virtual lab experiences for their students. They couldn’t find enough of the right specimens, so they decided to create their own digital library by scanning their collection.
Space Spider captures intricate surface detail
The Space Spider is a portable, high-resolution 3D scanner based on blue light technology. It captures small objects in great detail (as fine as 0.1 mm resolution) and easily renders complex geometry.
The output of the scanning process is a set of data points that represent the scanned object, containing every visible external detail. The resulting 3D CAD model replicates the real-world object on screen.
Over several months in 2020, the anthropology department built a database of hundreds of 3D models of fossil casts and bones. In January 2021, second year anthropology students began studying various hominin skulls (of modern humans and our immediate ancestors) remotely from home. Students in this course must learn about skeletal anatomy of various species of primates. Usually, there is a significant in-person lab component; for now, students analyze the 3D models on screen, including rotating them and zooming in on fine details.
Loos explained why it’s so important for 3D scanning to capture intricate surface details of their specimens.
“It’s the complex details that show us the morphology of a specimen – how that particular specimen or species is different from the next. The measurements we take of the digital 3D model are even more precise than a student could do by hand. We’re also looking for shape, texture, evidence of trauma, and progression of disease. Being able to add descriptions to the models allows us to point students in the right direction as they learn about species features and adaptation over time.”
Choosing and implementing the right technology
Early discussions between the department and Javelin were about choosing the right scanning technology for their unique needs – making a digital library of collections housed at various campuses and portability for use in the field for faculty research projects. The Space Spider meets current needs and allows for expansion into other areas.
Loos reports that Javelin further supported the department by advising on the technology they needed to accompany the 3D scanner, training users, and finding solutions to early issues with connectivity.
“When there were bumps in the road calibrating the scanner, our Javelin tech support person visited to troubleshoot and find a solution.”
Other noteworthy uses of the scanner
3D scanning has gained popularity among paleoanthropologists and archeologists because of the speed of data collection, portability of handheld scanners, and the many benefits of having digital 3D models, such as safely archiving samples for future research.
You don’t have to handle the material to study it, which helps preserve fragile specimens, and ongoing data collection is possible, even when the original specimen is not accessible. Most field finds must remain in the country of origin.
At U of T, the Artec Space Spider can be used for additional applications across multiple university departments:
- For forensic genetics research (to obtain high-resolution 3D facial pictures to identify genes that influence facial or pigmentary traits)
- In the Biomedical Communications program, such as to create 3D images of anatomy features
- For forensic science research, such as in crime scene reconstruction
- To generate complete digital 3D models of artifacts, based only on existing real-world fragments
Additional advantages of scanned models
The digital library was born out of necessity during the pandemic but will be useful even when in-person learning returns. It can be used by faculty and students from any of the three U of T campuses for at-home study, during exams, and even in the field. Previously, each campus had access to only its own specialized collection.
Loos said Dr. Schroeder’s anthropology course simply could not run during the pandemic without the digital library.
“I hope that one day the students enrolled now will have a chance to visit the lab to see and touch the specimens. I want them to know just how close the 3D models are to the real thing.”
Learn more about University of Toronto’s anthropology department at utm.utoronto.ca/anthropology.