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Idaho State University awarded $1 million NSF grant; ISU, Canadian Museum of Civilization team up on online, virtual laboratory

September 21, 2010
ISU Marketing and Communications

Efforts by Idaho State University and Canadian Museum of Civilization researchers to further create an online, interactive, virtual museum of northern animal bones have been bolstered by a $1,029,232 grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

"We are building on the success of our pilot project," said grant principal investigator Herbert Maschner, ISU anthropology research professor, director of the ISU Center for Archaeology, Materials, and Applied Spectroscopy and interim director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History. "This new National Science Foundation grant will result in a ground-breaking website that will provide the tools necessary to assist more efficient, accurate, and cost-effective analyses of arctic animals by researchers around the world."

The grant, titled "Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (VZAP): Phase II," was awarded to Idaho State University earlier this month. The grant’s other principal investigators are Corey Schou, Ph.D., professor of information systems and director of the ISU Informatics Research Institute, and Matthew Betts, Ph.D., curator of Atlantic Provinces Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and a former postdoctoral researcher at ISU.

This group of researchers used pilot funds from a $310,000 NSF grant received in 2008 to begin creating an online two- and three-dimensional archeological collection of Arctic animal bones, which was built using techniques developed in the Informatics Research Institute and the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory (http://vzap.iri.isu.edu/). The VZAP team has now produced more than 3,000 individual 3D models and more than 12,000 digital photographs, while also developing advanced 3D laser scanning protocols, implementing a robust database, and creating a revolutionary graphical user interface, the Dynamic Image Engine.

Animal bones rec­­overed from northern archaeological and paleontological sites are often superbly preserved and therefore provide a highresolution record of ancient human behaviors, climatic regimes, past ecological variability, and animal populations. However, researchers who analyze these materials are significantly hampered by the absence of comprehensive northernfocused vertebrate reference collections, of which only a handful exists in North America. High-resolution reference collections are necessary to adequately identify bone fragments.

"VZAP replicates the complete skeletons of 132 taxa (a grouping of organisms given a formal taxonomic name such as species, genus, family) of northern fish, mammals, and birds, in both 2D and 3D, and delivers them on a unique online database," Schou said. "A workshop held to demonstrate the functionality of VZAP, and to provide input from the scientific community, resulted in survey data that demonstrate the broad community support for this concept in general, and VZAP in particular."

The VZAP tools were recently shown in France and are being tracked actively by bloggers.

Phase 2 of VZAP, funded with the new NSF grant, will continue this research.

"We will streamline our 3D scanning with new technologies, we will refine and further upgrade our graphical user interface and database," Betts said. "And, most importantly, we will complete the scanning and photography of the remaining 76 arctic taxa necessary to complete the VZAP catalogue, and add an additional 145 individuals to the most common and closely related species."

The broader impacts and intellectual merits of VZAP are considerable.

"As demonstrated by the results of a workshop and user studies, the international archaeological and paleontological communities believe VZAP addresses a significant deficit in the ability of arctic scientists to conduct zooarchaeological and paleontological research," Maschner said. "We are also developing virtualization strategies and software technologies that are of great utility to the museum, academic, and social science communities.  Several important collaborations have already stemmed from this work."

Schou pointed out that this is complimentary grant to the recent Technology Incentive Grant the project received from the Idaho State Board of Education. Furthermore, Maschner noted that this award has provided the methods and skills necessary to create a virtual museum of the collections in the Idaho Museum of Natural History as well. This is the first large award to be received by the IMNH since Maschner became Interim Director.

More broadly, these researchers are developing an informatics system that promotes outreach and pathways of knowledge for students and casual learners, and provides a resource for K12 and university instructors to teach northern science in an engaging, interactive, and digital format.

"VZAP democratizes science and provides new research avenues for a broad spectrum of northern scholars by providing general access to collections normally only available to museum staff and advanced researchers," Maschner said.

 "This is a tremendous tool for researchers," Betts said. "At the same time, the interactive technology and scanning protocols we are developing have significant applicability to the museum communities. This is a system that can be transferred to any heritage collection."



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