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Anthropology instructors at U of T digitize hundreds of teaching specimens for online courses

Using portable 3D scanners, a team of professors and graduate students created a new database that attempts to replicate the hands-on experience of identifying fossils and other specimens.


Since the fall, a small group of anthropology instructors at the University of Toronto has spent hundreds of hours digitizing fossils and bone casts in service of online learning.

Lauren Schroeder, who teaches at U of T Mississauga, took on the painstaking work of creating a digital database after a search of teaching resources on the web returned disappointing results. She has teamed up with Bence Viola and Michelle Cameron at U of T’s St. George campus as well as graduate student assistants Lavania Nagendran, Klara Komza and Madeleine McCuaig to scan specimens using portable 3D scanners, upload images, and type up specimen and class notes.

A graduate student assistant uses a hand-held 3D scanner to create a digital model of a skull. Photo courtesy of U of T.

Because of the detail the 3D models require, the scanning is slow going. The team has collectively logged up to 400 hours scanning 300 unique specimens, developing the database and lesson planning. Once the images and descriptive information have been uploaded to the learning management system, students can use their cursors to interact with the annotated 3D models in much the same way they might in person. Dr. Viola estimates more than 1,000 anthropology students will access the 3D images this winter term.

The database was borne of U of T’s pivot to online learning for the academic year, but the tool has already proven to be a valuable addition no matter the course format.

“The advantage is that once the models have been created and uploaded, they are available for the future,” Dr. Viola says. “I think that even after we return to in-person tutorials, they will be valuable aids for studying for our students.”

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  1. Letitia Henville / March 18, 2021 at 19:30

    Were these created as an open educational resource?