Using 3D Models to Teach Zoology Remotely

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One of the joys of teaching zoology at a university is the feeling of awe you get from using real specimens to present the natural world to a new generation of young scientists.

There is a tactile pleasure and deeper understanding that comes from picking up a lion skull, feeling the sharpness of its teeth and watching closely how the tooth blades pass one another as the jaws bite down. But this year, we were forced to rethink how we teach as COVID-19 drove our classes online, leaving our teaching collection sitting idle behind the locked university doors.

We needed a new way to share specimens so that our students—living in isolation around our city (Melbourne, Australia)—were still able to learn and be inspired by these natural treasures.

Sketchfab to the rescue!

The course we were teaching this semester is called “Animal Structure and Function” and in it students learn how to look at the shape of an animal’s bones to understand how it lived its life. In a normal year, this would mean presenting hundreds of skeletons and skulls in laboratories where the students can individually pick up and compare the features of each animal.

Sketchfab provided us with a way to do that online, letting the students examine objects in their own time and from their own homes. To our surprise, this allowed us to not only teach the things we have always taught, but also to present some information in new ways that simply aren’t possible with a real, fragile specimen.

Here are some of the scenes we created and things we have learned so far along our 2020 Sketchfab teaching adventure!

Natural history in glorious 3D

When we first began this process, we were worried about whether we could capture the magic of the real specimens. While macabre, skulls can be beautiful objects dense with information allowing us to tell the story of evolution and how it shapes the natural world.

We were fortunate that through our team’s research endeavors, we had  ready access to a large collection of 3D models of the skulls, teeth, and limbs from a wide range of species. We have used medical CT, lab microCT, synchrotron, and surface 3D scanners to capture the shapes. Sketchfab provided an easy-to-use platform that allowed us to quickly turn these resources into valuable teaching tools, with a user-friendly interface that allowed students with no 3D experience to effectively engage with specimens from their own computers.

Among the first models we created was this scene showing off the teeth of the Antarctic crabeater seal using a fantastic specimen from Museums Victoria. This amazing “filter feeding” seal uses unusual lattice-like teeth as a sieve to trap tiny krill prey during feeding.

Sketchfab’s dramatic lighting controls and fantastic materials rendering allowed us to recreate the look of a physical specimen online in a dramatic and life-like way. By animating the object, the students first encountered the specimen as it unexpectedly turned its jaws on them!

The annotations tool allowed us to set predefined views, such as this perspective from inside the mouth showing the “krill cage” formed by the rows of teeth. This helped us to guide the students, even as they led their own learning while exploring the specimen in their own time:

evans evomorph lab 3d

By sharing this scene alongside video footage of live seals filter feeding using their teeth, we were able to demonstrate how the anatomical structures in these animals enable their remarkable behaviours.

Sketchfab let us create beautiful resources that do full justice to the remarkable specimens portrayed within them!

A Sketchfab mystery…

Usually, one of the highlights of our zoology labs is the “mystery object” bench.

This is the last workstation encountered by the students as they work their way through the practical classes. Using what they have learned, they test themselves by identifying the bone specimens and using them to work out each animal’s way of life.

This is a classic exercise in comparative anatomy and one that we were able to effectively replicate online using Sketchfab!

First we created scenes with labeled models that allowed us to train our students to identify the bones and characteristics associated with different ways of life. For example, by comparing the limbs of two of Australia’s most iconic species—the burrowing wombat and climbing koala—they could see how long flexible arms are helpful to a climber, while a burrower has stout bones with large muscle attachments for powerful digging.

For tree-dwelling animals like koalas, the ability to rotate the wrist is especially important. This allows them to reach overhead for branches while climbing and also to grasp and pull food towards their mouth (koalas survive on an unlikely diet of toxic gum leaves). To highlight this functionality, we created a scene showing how the bones of the forearm move as the wrist rotates the palm to face up and down—an ability that is equally essential in humans, for whom it has enabled the development of advanced tool use and technology!

For a more direct comparison, we then created a side-by-side look at the limb bones of a wombat and koala using the materials controls to colour the corresponding bones for easy comparison between species:

Thus primed, the students were then presented with a set of mystery long bones to test their knowledge! Feel free to have a go yourselves and put your answers in the comments below!

Animation: Giving life to old bones

One of the most exciting features we have come across on Sketchfab is the power to share animated 3D models. This has allowed us to clearly present students with information about how an animal moves that is difficult to replicate with a fragile (and often irreplaceable) real skull.

One place where animation really stood out was in showing how animals chew their food.

Meat-eating animals like big cats have sharp bladed teeth that slide past one another like scissors as the jaws close. To illustrate this action, we animated a Cheetah skull and created annotations that put the viewer in the perfect spot to see how these teeth work:

In contrast, most plant eaters have teeth shaped for grinding up tough leaves and grass. This action requires a completely different jaw motion that sees the teeth grate horizontally past one another:

In addition to using scans of real specimens, we were also able to use these tools to present idealised 3D models that illustrate clearly how different types of teeth work and how their various parts interact with each other during chewing:

By animating these 3D models we could create precise jaw motions that the students could easily compare across species. By creating annotations with preset views, we could also easily direct students where to look to see these motions clearly. Showing these features can be challenging with a real object, as we often can’t see into the mouth of the animal through the bones.

This ability highlighted to us that in some cases Sketchfab can be a more effective teaching tool than using the real object.

Some lessons learned…

Because of the rapid and unexpected switch to online teaching in 2020, we were forced to learn on the fly along with our students!

We can remember excitedly telling students in Prac 1 about how the next class would have 3D animated models—if only we could work out how to make them in time! As a result, we were still “working out the kinks” as we created new Sketchfab scenes week to week.

One of the first things we learned was that we needed to spend a bit more time teaching the students how to navigate the 3D scenes within Sketchfab. For many, this was their first encounter with manipulation of digital 3D models. By spending a bit of extra time demonstrating how to navigate (pan, scroll, zoom and reset the center of rotation), it allowed the students to more quickly begin to take full advantage of the freedoms provided by 3D visualisation in allowing them to closely examine specimens from any perspective.

Another helpful way around this issue was to use annotations to create a series of predefined views that highlight particular features within each model. This approach allows the students to click through the views without having to steer the window to each perspective on their own. This was particularly useful when teaching via Zoom, as we could use the chat to direct the students to particular annotations to examine specific features of interest.

The other main issue we ran into using Sketchfab for online teaching was that students with slow laptop computers sometimes struggled to load larger models. This was especially problematic as we were embedding multiple Sketchfab scenes within a single webpage using the online teaching platform Moodle. Some students reported their computers struggling and failing to load when they tried to open multiple scenes within a single browser window. To get around this barrier, the students were told to follow the link to open each model individually. Alternatively, when working in groups, the student with the fastest computer often loaded the models and screenshared to the other members of their team. As a result of this, minimising the uploaded file sizes as much as possible therefore became a priority as we created the next set of models.

In all, we were remarkably impressed by how stable and reliable this process was. In each laboratory class we had up to 70 students working with the same set of Sketchfab models without any major issues.

In an otherwise difficult year, Sketchfab enabled us to continue to teach our students throughout 2020 using amazing zoology specimens—and all from the safety of their own homes!

Where to from here…

As we enter a new year, we are now shifting our thoughts to this semester’s teaching. Here in Australia, we hope to be back in the lab for 2021 surrounded by the sights—and sometimes smells—of our zoology collection.

But we now have a new tool in our “pedagogical arsenal” and by displaying real specimens alongside 3D models, we can take advantage of the unique ways that each of these can be used to encourage active learning in the lab and beyond. For example, another strength of Sketchfab is that it enables students to view specimens in ways that would be impossible with a real specimen. This is often the case with extremely large specimens (e.g. the skull of a whale or elephant) that are simply too large to handle, making it challenging to view from multiple perspectives. In contrast, by viewing these objects as 3D models, the students have full control over how they examine these specimens.

At first, I wanted to see the actual bones of the animals we were studying, however, due to COVID-19 restriction, I was unable to do that. However, Sketchfab was a wonderful alternative and improvement to this as it allowed me to see and interact with a 3D skeleton of the animal I was studying. It was as though I had my own model of the animal, which I could learn from at any time of the day.” Dinal Hesara Appuhamy – Zoology Student at Monash University

In particular, we hope to begin exploring the use of virtual and augmented reality to view and interact with 3D skeleton data.

The integration of Sketchfab into our teaching has been a firm highlight for us and our 2020 students, and we look forward to continuing to develop this project into the future.


About the author

David Hocking, Hazel Richards and Al Evans

David is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, where he studies the evolution of behaviour in marine mammals. Hazel is a PhD candidate at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, where she studies the functional anatomy of Australia’s extinct marsupial megafauna. Al is an Associate Professor in zoology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, where he researches the anatomy and function of modern and extinct animals.

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