Blog Post #75: Interview with Christine Johnston of the Ancient World in 3D Project

Our blogs posts in February and March feature public scholars working across various media who are pushing for creative, inclusive, and ethical means of representing the ancient world. All of these individuals will be presenting at our upcoming colloquium, “Presenting the Past: Responsible Engagement and Ancient Mediterranean History”. This colloquium asks how we as educators inside and outside the academy can more effectively participate in public discourse about the ancient Mediterranean. How do we engage in responsible public scholarship that is more inclusive of past diversity and modern audiences? We’re excited to feature the work of several public scholars who are creating innovative and compassionate answers to this question.

How did you conceive of this project?

This project developed out of a conversation between myself (Christine) and a cohort of graduate students in the WWU History MA program. We had met as a group to chat about PhD programs, the application process, and the job market, and during this meeting, the conversation turned to teaching and our experiences as an instructor / as TAs. I mentioned that I had recently read an article (Please Touch the Art) about how 3D printing technologies were improving accessibility in museums, and we started talking about the potential ways that 3D printed objects could be used in the classroom. From there, Alan, Alexis, Erin, and I decided to pursue and test this idea. (Emily Lampert also helped us with this first brainstorming session, but wasn’t able to stay on with the project as she was preparing for her thesis defense—thanks for your input Emily!).

What are the main goals/objectives of this project? How does the project augment learning experiences for students?

The project examines the use of 3D printed and replica materials in teaching about ancient cultures and societies. The goals are to 1) test whether the incorporation of 3D prints enhances student learning by creating multi-modal and authentic active learning experiences; and 2) whether the opportunity to handle and examine prints and replicas increases accessibility of course material for students of diverse backgrounds and learning needs. We also hope that providing opportunities for students to handle and interact with objects—for which the originals are usually housed far away in overseas institutions like the British Museum or the Louvre—will help to make the ancient world feel more relevant and accessible. In creating free, open access teaching modules, we wanted to support teachers in broadening the focus of historical teaching by incorporating objects related to daily life that can redirect the study of ancient cultures from the grandiose markers of “civilization” to the every-day world of living people.

Three images of the same Athenian coin, including the original and a 3D -printed version. The coin depicts the Athena's Owl with three Greek letters running down the side (Alpha, Theta, Epsilon)
Athenian Tetradrachm and 3D Print (Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. 1941.296; print from model by Pinotoon)

From a pedagogical perspective, research in the learning sciences demonstrates that active learning, in which students engage mentally—and often physically—in activities that encourage cognitive awareness of the learning process improves learning retention and helps students in constructing meaning. To be considered “authentic” learning experiences, the activities should recreate the types of work that would be undertaken by professionals in the field. In our case then, we wanted to design modules that gave students the opportunity to apply historical and archaeological methods in the classroom. We also wanted to study the effectiveness of the modules in student learning. As part of this project, we have been running in-class trials of the modules in introductory courses on ancient history, with students completing surveys after each module as well as a final survey assessing the overall use of objects in the course.

We learn an art or craft by doing the things that we shall have to do when we have learnt it: for instance, men become builders by building houses, harpers by playing on the harp.

Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 2.1.4)

The learning modules we have developed incorporate 3D printed objects into activities that offer students the chance to engage in historical and archaeological work (deciphering scripts and analyzing coins) while engaging in discussions of disciplinary methods. We have also brought in other 3D prints and replicas through the quarter to provide examples of materials under discussion (e.g., amulets, figurines, lamps, astragali gaming pieces, etc.), and to set up important discussions of cultural heritage, looting, and repatriation, including discussions around the ethics of creating and sharing 3D models of cultural heritage (particularly looted holdings or sacred materials). The module we are currently developing focuses explicitly on cultural heritage, looting, and forgery, and includes prints of the bust of Nefertiti, cuneiform tablets, cycladic figurines, and a heart scarab.

There are two images here. On the left is is a yellow oval-shaped head atop a long rectangular neck. The only visible facial feature is a long, narrow nose. The image on the right is a 3D reconstruction of a Cycladic head, again with a long oval head, a short neck and a long nose. This one is white.
Cycladic marble head, ca. 2700–2500 BCE (Metropolitan Museum inv. 64.246; print made from 3D model by Scan the World)
What has your experience been with employing 3D objects in classroom settings? What outcomes of this project have really stood out to you? What are the barriers for other educators and institutions in producing similar 3D-printed objects for teaching purposes?

Working on this project has been an amazing experience, and student responses to the modules have been excellent! We will be writing up the findings of the in-class testing at the end of this upcoming Spring Quarter, which will by that point include survey results from 5 classes. As an instructor, this project has given me a fantastic opportunity to spend time reimagining and restructuring my classes around activities that are clearly aligned with course learning objectives and are designed using sound pedagogical theory—activities that also happen to be super fun! I have also really enjoyed getting to collaborate with graduate students on every step of this project, from initial idea to research design to the interpretation of study results. As specialists in history or archaeology or philology, we don’t often get a lot of opportunity to focus on research related to teaching in our field, so this experience has been hugely beneficial to my teaching across all classes.

There are two images here. On the top is a round, orange tablet with mathematical symbols. The bottom image is a line drawing of the same image as well as an interpretive image with the numbers 1, 24, 51, 10, 42, 25, 35, and 30.
Babylonian Mathematical Tablet, Yale Peabody Museum Babylonian collection inv. YPM BC 021354. (Image courtesy of the Peabody Museum, Yale University. Model found HERE)

The two main barriers I see for others incorporating these types of activities are the financial investment and technical skills needed to produce 3D prints. As 3D printing technology becomes more affordable and broadly accessible, I hope that more teachers will have the opportunity to produce prints for the classroom. Thankfully, projects like Scan The World and institutional initiatives at some public and university museums are providing free or inexpensive 3D models for personal and educational use (you can find a list of some of the models we have printed HERE and a discussion of the printer, software, and materials we used HERE).

What are some future plans for this project? What new materials and/or topics do you hope to cover? How can others access the teaching modules for this project?

We are currently developing a third module on cultural heritage and looting that looks directly at issues of forgery, looting and the current antiquities market, and future avenues for repatriation of stolen cultural heritage. We will be sharing this module at the upcoming Presenting the Past: Responsible Engagement and Ancient Mediterranean History colloquium hosted by the Peopling the Past team.

The two completed teaching modules are available on our project website, Ancient World in 3D. This includes links to 3D models, descriptions of the learning modules, and downloadable module worksheets. We have also published an expanded description of the coin module and its pedagogical design as part of the OA project, Visualizing Objects, Places, and Spaces: A Digital Handbook. You can find our publication of the coin module HERE. We will share our looting and cultural heritage module on our website soon!

A red-coloured 3D-printed bust of the Egyptian goddess Nefertiti, who wears a large crown on top of her head.
3D print of the Bust of Nefertiti (model by Scan the World)
Four images of the members of the Ancient World in 3D Project. In the first image Alan Wheeler is wearing a yellow shirt and a grey sweater and stands in front on the ocean. In the second image, Alexis Nunn, with long brown hair, wears a purple jacket and stands in front of a bridge. The Third photo is a selfie of Erin Escobar, who has long light brown hair and wears a blue shirt. In the last photo, Christine Johnston wears a floral shirt and stands in front of some greenery.
Members of the Ancient World in 3D Project. From left to right: Alan Wheeler, Alexis Nunn, Erin Escobar, and Christine Johnston.

The team is made up of three current and recent MA students at Western Washington University, Alan Wheeler, Alexis Nunn, and Erin Escobar, and Christine Johnston, Assistant Professor of Ancient Mediterranean History at WWU. Alan and Christine both work on ancient Eastern Mediterranean, West Asian, and North African histories, while Alexis and Erin work on Medieval European and American histories respectively. In addition to our individual areas of research, all four team members are interested in pedagogy and in public history (Christine is also the video editor for Peopling the Past!).

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