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
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
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
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.
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.
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., (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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
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