By Bernard K. Means, Director, Virtual Curation Laboratory
On Monday of this week (October 17, 2016), I was contacted by Brooke Byington, a student teacher at William Fox Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. She is currently a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where I teach. A few years ago, she had taken my Introduction to Archaeology course and learned that I had 3D printed artifacts from Jamestown. For her fourth grade class, she wanted to know if she could borrow some 3D printed replicas for a lesson on archaeology and Jamestown.
Now, if she was asking for real artifacts, this request would be impossible—the original artifacts are too rare and too fragile. But, for 3D printed replicas, this is not an issue. We have a large number of 3D scanned and 3D printed artifacts from Jamestown—in fact from across the globe. I invited Brooke to visit the Virtual Curation Laboratory (VCL), and she accepted, with a visit scheduled for the afternoon of the next day. That Tuesday morning, I came in and 3D printed an extra butchered dog jaw from the “Starving Time” at James Fort of 1609 to 1610. This period saw desperate English settlers under siege from the native population, and turning to eating anything they could (rats, dogs, horses, and, eventually, people). After the dog jaw was printed, my Laboratory Manager Brenna Geraghty, herself a VCU alumnae, painted the replica to give it an air of verisimilitude (Figure 1).
When Brooke came to the VCL, I was able to share with her the butchered dog jaw and other objects from Jamestown. And, because these were “extra” copies of the 3D printed artifacts, I could give them to Brooke. She would not need to worry about returning them, and this will make it easier for her to develop lessons around these objects.
This is where I see the real power of 3D printed replicas. I think one of the strengths of archaeology is that we use the things we find to tell stories about the people of the past. Sometimes of these stories are clearly linked to particular individuals, places, or times, and others ares more broadly referring to aspects of the human condition.
The importance of 3D scanned and 3D printed items for education is not lost on other educators either. Just a few weeks ago, Gillian Lambert, an 8th Grade English teacher and an English Department Coordinator in the Henrico County, Virginia, school system got in touch with me. She wanted to use the 3D scan of the key found on Edgar Allan Poe’s body that is on our Sketchfab site for a lesson, which she has graciously agreed to allow me to place on our own blog site (link). The key was originally scanned at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum here in Richmond, Virginia (Figure 2).
Last week I talked to educators in two different settings. One was at the Valentine Museum, here in Richmond, Virginia. Jeff Aronowitz, the E. Claiborne Robins, Jr. Director of Public Programs at The Valentine, arranged on October 10 for the two of us to talk about educational technology to Henrico Middle and High School English teachers and Henrico High School social studies teachers, with an emphasis on 3D scanning and 3D printing. We were particularly interested in letting the teachers know that artifacts were available via Sketchfab and other sites that they could 3D print for their lessons. And, of course, we were interested in establishing a dialogue with the teachers to find out how we could help them with their lessons and teaching people about the past and the City of Richmond’s heritage. I had set up a table of artifacts from all over the world that teachers could look at after Jeff and I finished talking about off-the-shelf and low-cost technological solutions for education (Figure 3).
Two days after that, I was in Colonial Williamsburg for the National Archaeology Educators Conference, organized by Project Archaeology. Here, I was speaking to an audience that included educators and professional archaeologists responsible for public outreach from all over the world. I informed people about the Virtual Curation Laboratory, particularly our strong focus on experiential learning for undergraduate VCU students, as well as our 3D scanning efforts across the world. Again, I had a table of artifact replicas out for people to examine, and a number of attendees seemed inspired to use 3D printed replicas in their own outreach efforts (Figure 4).
I rely myself on 3D printed artifact replicas as a key way of teaching my VCU students about archaeological methods, particular artifact and bone identification. I can hand out multiple sets of 3D printed objects in a classroom that I have at best for two hours. I have even incorporated 3D printed artifacts into a mapping lesson for my student. Currently, my VCL interns and workers in the lab are creating identification and research kits that will be available for my students next semester, and eventually distributed on the web at a dedicated site. The lessons will be linked to models that can be downloaded, so that they can be used by anyone in the world (Figure 5).
I think that the day is not far off that 3D printed artifact replicas will become a regular part of teaching. Tactile learning is an important tool, and replicas are moving on from simply being seen as novelties to legitimate pedagogical tools.