Capturing Dinosaurs – The Beginning

Yesterday we launched a ten day summer program for high school youth using the Museum’s dinosaur collections and the tools of digital fabrication to teach comparative fossil anatomy. The program, Capturing Dinosaurs, is a remarkable collaboration amongst our education department, our graduate school, the maker-oriented HTINK, a youth intern provided by MakerBot, and individuals around the museum.

19 youth from around the city and beyond, largely those new to AMNH educational programs, shared in advance why they were interested in attending. The following response encapsulates them all – an interest in dinosaurs, current technology, and a way to combine the two:

Dinosaurs have always been a mysterious animal that I have been curious about. In this program I will be able to understand how to distinguish bones from each other. I am looking forward to learning how to use a 3D printer and making my own copy of a dinosaurs fossil. There are many types of dinosaurs and hopefully at the end of this program I will know how to distinguish them all!


Digital Badges

By the end of the program we want youth participants to be able to develop a range of specific scientific literacies, such as being able to:

  • identify dinosaur fossils, both the part of the body and specific species
  • describe how paleontologists use evidence to determine dinosaur posture and behavior
  • accurately reconstruct skeletal model of dinosaurs
  • develop competencies regarding various 3-D scanning, modelling, and printing techniques

One of the ways we will measure progress towards these learning objectives is through a new digital badging system. To introduce badges, we asked youth to list all the places where they learn (and they could define “places” and “learn” anyway they chose). Below is the list they came up with:

Introducing badges to new program. Their group learning ecology. Only 3 nodes know what they are learning elsewhere.

We talked about how they and only they know what they’ve learned across their learning ecology. Most of their sites of learning have little ways to know what they are learning at the other sites. The exceptions they identified, circled in red, were School, Parents and Social Media. We explored what it might mean for them if there was a way for all their nodes to know what they were learning throughout their ecology, if adults thinking about their betterment could thoughtfully share that information, and if the youth were in charge of deciding what got shared and with whom (and not just the formal but also the informal and “unintended” learning.)

This is at the heart of why our educational programs like this one are experimenting with badging systems over the summer. Many of the youth were excited by the idea and immediately understood how the badging system for Capturing Dinosaurs could provide motivation during the program and help them to better understand and appreciate what they were learning along the way.

By the end of the second day, more than half of the youth submitted evidence towards earning badges like the DinoDef(inition) Badge, the Inquisitive Badge, and the Dino Wars badge. As an example, the following was a successful submission for the DinoDef badge, which asked them to revise the definition of a dinosaur they wrote during their first hour in the program:

My original definition of a dinosaur was: “A ‘big lizard’ that is extinct.” I revised it later and added on that it was an Archosaurs. I should revise it again and add that the dinosaurs also had a hole in there hip socket which is a major way to show that they are dinosaurs. I also learned that the dinosaurs didn’t walk upright and that there tails did not drag along the ground.

By reviewing badge submissions – most approved, but not all – we were quickly able to see whether or not we were achieving the learning objectives we had set out, at both a group and an individual level.

Bone Wars

The youth were introduced to the early history of paleontology, in part, through playing a challenging and fun card game of the same name (reviewed on this blog recently). In the game, the youth took on the role of real paleontologists, like Marsh and Cope, collected dinosaur fossils, built museum exhibits, and then tried to destroy the reputation of their competitors (through superior scientific evidence!). The core mechanic of the play involves building your museum dinosaur exhibits by properly matching fossils with dinosaur cards, paying attention to such things as the position of nostrils and the direction of the public bone – comparative fossil anatomy as game!

Asked through the badging system to process and address the ethical issues involved, many of the youth were able to see how ethical practices and codes (required to advance science) developed early on within the emerging field of paleontology. As one youth who earned the Bone Wars badge concluded:

[The Bone Wars] benefited the field of Paleontology, since it established ethics of the field from the early stage (This probably is the most important thing in science). It is important that correction of studies should be taken as an effort to advance in science, instead of a personal attack.


Fossil Reptiles Collections

During the program the youth get to go behind the scenes. Many reported today that it made them feel “special,” and it should. As one asked in reflection at the end of today, “How many people can say they have touched a millions-of-years old dinosaur fossil?” One place they touched fossils was in the Fossil Reptiles Collection, a place I didn’t even know existed until this program. Just like the stacks in a University library, the collections are housed and can be moved around with the light touch on a great wheel. The youth got to not only turn the wheel but explore some of the shelves, like the one below, filled with dinosaur fossils. They were told that, later in the day, drawers from this very room would be available for them to digitally capture and explore – but they wouldn’t learn which dinosaurs were the source, nor the body part they were reconstructing, until they could figure it out through their own research.


Capturing Dinosaurs

Capturing Dinosaur youth taking 3D scans, for the 1st time, using real dinosaur fossils  youth:"This is cool."#AMNH

When I told my son the name of the program, Capturing Dinosaurs, he laughed, as I thought he might. He loves puns. The title, on one hand, means to pursue dinosaurs and take them into possession. On the other hand, it refers to digitally capturing a physical object, a term of art within the digital fabrication community. And at the end of the day today, the youth began to do just that.


Using the free 123dCatch app on the iOS (from Autodesk) youth worked in groups to digitally capture the fossils in their drawers. Today was just the beginning of two capturing sessions. Youth put each fossil on newsprint (to generate rich background noise) and on top of foam (to protect the fossil). They then took a scan on one side, flipped it, and then took another (later they will learn how to combine the two into one digital model).


We are proud to be amongst other NYC museums offering digital fabrication programs to youth this summer, like the Met and MoMA, but we can’t find anyone in the world has had a group of youth mass scanning a fossil collection. As a result, we honestly had no idea how well this might work, as no one has ever done anything like this before. How fast could they learn to make a solid 3D capture? Would the Internet hold up, as dozens of model were being sent to the Cloud for processing? And how long would it take to capture each fossil? The youth are being challenged to capture over four dozen fossils – could we honestly expect 19 youth to capture them all, AND both sides, in the time allotted?

We had our answer by the end of the day, when the youth finished posting more than a 100 (!) captures, most exquisitely rendered like this:

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 10.08.39 PM

By the end of the second day of capturing, I can estimate that they have taken between 5,000 – 6,000 photos.

Building Dinosaurs

The title of the program might as well be Building Dinosaurs, as that is what the youth are learning to do – how do you identify the place of any particular fossil within the overall structure, how do you put them together, and how do you position them in a scientifically accurate way? They first addresses these questions within the game Bone Wars, and next they did a puzzle-like activity which took this comparative anatomy to a new level. After putting their paper dinosaur together (see below), the youth used print resources to identify the name of the individual bones.


The next step will be answering the same three questions but this time using digital 3D models they produce on their own. This will then be followed by the final project for the program: translating that practice back to the physical world, constructing their own printed dinosaur from 3D printed fossils from their own models.

Photos from the program are being posted here.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
This entry was posted in From My Work, Practice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Capturing Dinosaurs – The Beginning

  1. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (13 July 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

  2. Pingback: Forum Friday « paleoaerie

  3. Tricia says:

    From a little dabbling I know that 123DCatch is fairly easy to learn, but not as easy to master (that is, get high quality captures). Did you end up creating any kind of guide or resource for them, to get to the next level of quality? Were you using any of the Autodesk tools beyond 123DCatch on phones?

  4. Barry says:

    Tricia, We did come up with some general rules – about lighting, camera angle, composition and such. Things that are not intuitive but you learn through use. On the phones we only used 123DCatch but on the laptops we used Tinkercad and Meshmixer.

Comments are closed.