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Seeing is Learning

Cecilia Gaposchkin
Michael Dietrich with cross-section models from the 1920s of a paramecium, a bee, and a lily. The models will be displayed in Life Forms: Visual Lessons in Biology, an exhibition that Dietrich is curating. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"Learning in science is visual," says Michael Dietrich, associate professor of biological sciences. This sentiment captures the spirit of a spring institute being sponsored by The Fannie and Alan Leslie Center for the Humanities, called Visual Culture and Pedagogy in the Life Sciences.

The institute is exploring how objects and tools (photographs, drawings, sculptures, videos, and digital images) have been used to teach different aspects of the life sciences, and how they continue to evolve to enhance the learning experience.

"Learning outside of the written text is of growing interest across disciplines, and this is especially true in the sciences," Dietrich says.
In a combination of public lectures and academic workshops, the institute is covering the topic from a variety of angles. Participants include visiting scholars and campus fellows who represent a broad spectrum of disciplines, including history, art history, philosophy, film and television studies, and biology.

Jonathan Crewe, professor of English and director of the Leslie Center, says, "Our center was founded with an interdisciplinary mandate that we want to implement as imaginatively as possible. We're always on the lookout for ways to build better bridges to the sciences. Since we customarily devote a lot of attention to visual culture and representation, Mike Dietrich's proposal was extremely attractive."

The institute's scholar-in-residence is Nancy Anderson, an expert in the use of imaging in the life sciences, especially microscopy. She is on campus for about nine months conducting research, working with the institute, and helping develop an independent but interrelated exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art, called Life Forms: Visual Lessons in Biology. The exhibition, which runs from mid-April through May, showcases Dartmouth's collection of historic material from the biology department archives, including an assortment of models representing brains, cells, a flower, a bee, and a five-foot-tall paper maché human being (complete with removable organs, once used for anatomy class).

Hannah Thompson Croasdale
Hannah Thompson Croasdale (Photo: Dartmouth Library)

"I think my favorite piece in the exhibition is a Zeiss Ultraphot," says Deitrich, referring to a 1950s era microscope. "It was the first post-war photomicroscope." The microscope is one of many collected by Robert Allen, a former Dartmouth biology professor who was a specialist in cell biology. The exhibition will also display the drawings of the late Hannah Thompson Croasdale, a freshwater biologist and authority on arctic plant life. In 1964, Croasdale became the first woman tenured professor at Dartmouth. The exhibition will include student coursework, including several illustrations by Stanton Friedberg '29.

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Last Updated: 5/30/08