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Integrating Digital Imaging Technology in the Undergraduate Biology Curriculum

Students have long prepared free-hand drawings of objects viewed through a microscope. Microscope-mounted 35mm cameras offered a possibility to document images with clarity, but high costs in equipment, processing, and time make 35mm cameras somewhat impractical. Now, the digital camera is changing the picture in the undergraduate biology laboratory.

By Chris Sacchi, Anne Zayaitz, Wendy Ryan, William Towne, and Carol Mapes

Digital cameras that produce images of excellent quality can provide instructors with the ability to introduce photography, at low or no per-image cost, into the undergraduate biology laboratory. And images produced by digital cameras can be downloaded to computers, where information about the organisms or structures under study can be analyzed more extensively using image analysis software designed for that purpose.

A Need for Digital Imaging Technology
In evaluating the biology courses at Kutztown University that students take to fulfill the requirements for B.S. degrees in Biology, Environmental Science, Marine Science, or Secondary Education-Biology, we found that a common concern was the need for students to acquire accurate information about visual materials and to extract course-appropriate information about those materials. Informally, students had expressed an interest in having more effective tools than hand-rendered drawings to aid them in learning about biology. The introduction of contemporary technological tools appeared to us to be the best means for students to accomplish the goal of recording and analyzing accurate images of visual materials.
We felt that it would be appropriate to introduce students to the use of digital imaging technology from their first course in biology, the introductory Principles of Biology course, through the core program, including Introduction to Botany and Introduction to Zoology. Targeted upper-division subjects included Genetics, Microbiology, Plant Physiology, Marine Science, and others. In all, we envisioned adapting eighteen microscope-based laboratory exercises, as well as independent study projects in thirteen courses. We planned for students to utilize the same technology in a variety of courses and to learn diverse applications for using digital image capture and analysis. In exploring how instructors at other colleges and universities were using digital imaging technology, we found that it was primarily used in upper-division courses, e.g., cell biology or histology. We believe that our expansion of digital imaging technology to the entire biology curriculum, our Biology Lab Adaptation and Digital Imaging Technology Project, represented a departure from these earlier uses.
We have acquired a sufficient number of digital imaging workstations so that students, working in groups of up to three, can have hands-on access. A digital imaging workstation consists of a research-quality Nikon microscope equipped with a trinocular head adapted for use with a Nikon CoolPix990 digital camera, and a Pentium computer running MS Windows that is connected to a color inkjet printer. The CoolPix990 camera is a consumer camera that can be readily adapted for use in the biology laboratory. For the undergraduate classroom, this camera and adapters were much more economical to acquire than digital cameras specifically designed for use with microscopes. Each computer is loaded with commercial software, including Microsoft Office 2000 Professional, Adobe Photoshop, and the Image Processing Toolkit, plus free image analysis software, Scion Image, which is adapted for use with PCs.

Goals of the Biology Lab Adaptation and Digital Imaging Technology Project
1. An important computer-assisted technology will be used by the students in the preparation and analysis of digital images of microscopic and macroscopic biological materials.
2. Introduce students to the importance of collection, analysis, and presentation of quantitative data.
3. Students will utilize computer software to prepare labeled images of biological materials to develop a more complete understanding of biological phenomena.
4. Students will develop the necessary skills and will have the technological resources available to prepare clear and thorough presentations of the results of laboratory observations and experiments through written reports, poster presentations, and oral presentations.

Labs Adapted
Lab exercises were adapted to enhance student learning in biology. From both faculty and student perspectives, digital technology has improved the traditional study of the cell cycle and mitosis in plant and animal cells.
In the past, students would examine cross-section slides of onion root tips and white fish blastula to study the process of mitosis in a representative plant and animal. Students would sketch the stages of mitosis and, in the onion root tip, might have counted the number of cells in each stage of the cell cycle. When numbers were inconsistent with expectations, it was often difficult to determine why the counts were in error, e.g., did a student have difficulty in correctly identifying the stages of the cell cycle?
With a digital imaging workstation, students capture images containing each stage of the cell cycle. They can upload the image to the computer, open it in Adobe Photoshop, crop the image to highlight a specific cell cycle stage, and then import the image into a MS Word document, where they can make a labeled diagram of the cell cycle-they do this for both plant and animal cells. For the portion of the exercise where the students count the number of plant cells in each cell cycle stage, they can record several images of the onion root tip using the camera. After downloading to the computer, students label each life cycle stage on a given image so that there can be agreement between student and instructor about the identity of these cell cycle stages. Further, when students are examining their images on the computer screen, they can share information and observations with their fellow students; the on-screen image is an invaluable teaching tool through which the students and the instructor can clarify their interpretations of which cell structures and life cycle stages are evident in the images.

Assessment and Outcomes
Periodically, software has locked up, necessitating the shutdown and restarting of computers. Continued efforts to deal promptly with technical problems by both faculty members and the Information Technology department are important to the successful introduction of technology into the undergraduate classroom.
Overall, the use of digital imaging technology in conjunction with standard software and image-processing software has led us to conclude that instruction in the biology laboratory is enhanced by this technology. While we have not evaluated whether students learn each subject more effectively now than prior to their use of the technology, we do have evidence from assessments that student attitudes about learning with digital imaging technology are very positive.

Chris Sacchi, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is an assistant professor; Anne Zayaitz, Ph.D., is an associate professor; Wendy Ryan, Ph.D., is a professor; William Towne, Ph.D., is a professor; and Carol Mapes, Ph.D., is an associate professor, all in the Department of Biology at Kutztown University.


Support for curriculum revision for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education through the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement program (Grant DUE-9952337) and Kutztown University.

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