When you ask junior Cory Henderson about anthropology and 3-D imaging, his eyes get wide and he starts talking a mile a minute.

There’s the 3-D scanner that scans bones and fossils and coverts them into digital files. And then there’s the 3-D printer that uses a photo-sensitive resin to print a solid object from the stereolithography (STL) file.

For Henderson, an anthropology and biology double major, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning.

Junior Cory Henderson and sophomore Emma Burn in the 3-D imaging lab

Junior Cory Henderson and sophomore Emma Burn, the primary students working in the 3-D imaging lab, recognize the importance of hands-on learning.

Along with sophomore Emma Burn and John Kimes ’15, Henderson is part of a team working to give anthropology and archaeology students 24/7 access to the fossils and bones they are studying. Through the creation of a digital database and a collection of printed models, students will now have the opportunity to get up close and personal with model specimens from anywhere in the world, without worrying about damaging a million-year-old relic.

“The online imaging helps students study outside of class instead of coming in during extra lab hours to handle the fossils,” Henderson said. “It’s a really great complement to a textbook.”

Henderson and Burn, the primary students working in the 3-D imaging lab, handle a variety of specimens, mostly from the 20th and 21st centuries. However, students have also scanned and printed several fossils that are 55 million years old, including the upper and lower jaw of a new species of fossil primate that Dr. Robert Anemone, head of the Department of Anthropology, recovered in Wyoming. He hopes to name and publish the new fossil in the coming months.

The scanning process usually takes one to two hours and often requires using software to fill in any holes and polish up the image. Once Henderson and Burn create an image and convert it into an STL file, they scale the image based on their preferences – often enlarging smaller specimens to better see detail – and click “print.” Depending on the size of the bone or fossil, the print can take up to 10 hours.

“Archaeology is such a hands-on profession. It’s helpful for me to be in a 3-D lab and not just sitting in a lecture,” Burn said.

photo of The 3-D scanner (front) and 3-D printer (back)

The 3-D scanner (front) and 3-D printer (back) are revolutionizing the way that anthropology and archaeology students study bones and fossils.

Down the hall, Kimes is taking professional-level skeletal photography, another way to provide additional resources to students. The photography and 3-D imaging will be used in several courses, including Human Osteology, a 400-level class in which students study the human skeleton in its entirety.

Anemone opened the lab in the fall of 2014 and couldn’t be happier with the results thus far. Not only is the lab transforming how the curriculum is taught, but it’s also transforming his students.

“Students often report that their most meaningful and valuable experiences in college occur when they work closely in a mentored relationship with professors who are deeply engaged in research,” Anemone said. “Through the lab, I’m trying to create high-impact experiences for my most talented and motivated students.”

Hands-on learning and field work are the cornerstones of the Department of Anthropology and the interdisciplinary Archaeology Program. In addition to the 3-D imaging lab, students have the opportunity to work at archaeological sites across the globe during the summer, including the iconic Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

For more information about the Department of Anthropology, click here. To learn more about the Archaeology Program, click here.


Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Relations
Photography by Chris Snow, Photography Intern, University Relations