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Calling all problem solvers

Students enter Freshman Imaging Project as ‘newbies,’ emerge as imaging scientists

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Nadya Spice and Scarlett Montanaro have earned their street cred. They are part of “the original six”—a title that will follow them throughout Carlson Hall until they graduate. The same respect extends to the other first-year students who transferred into imaging science or simply elected to enroll in the Freshman Imaging Project, something Stefano Prezioso likens to “jumping onto a moving train.”

The Freshman Imaging Project started as a bold, slightly risky effort to revamp the yearlong introduction to imaging science. Leadership in the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science wanted to replace the passive learning experience with something creative, innovative and fun.

In September, director Stefi Baum and associate director Joe Pow swapped the staid curriculum with a free-form project-design class emphasizing self-learning, problem solving and teamwork. Instead of the traditional guided tour of imaging science, the class would revolve around the design and construction of a sophisticated imaging device. There would be no handholding, spoon-feeding or formal lectures. It would be imaging science tough-love style. The six students were given their assignment, a deadline—Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival on May 7—and the keys to the 24-hour lab.

“When we walked into the classroom, Joe said, ‘Here’s what we want you to do. Good luck,’” says Spice, from Catonsville, Md. “And we were like, ‘What?!’ It was scary.”

The students were charged with replicating an imaging device used primarily by professionals working in the preservation of historical documents, manuscripts and small artifacts. The instrument—known as a polynomial texture mapping system—uses visible light to illuminate a subject from different directions and angles. Between 25 and 40 shots are compiled into one interactive image to examine subtle surface textures and features, such as dents, cracks and underwriting.

“I think the first quarter was more about learning what we were capable of,” Spice says. “We never knew we could teach ourselves this much; we never knew it would be expected of us.

“You really have to be interested to be in this major,” she adds. “Saying, ‘I need help,’ is another skill the class has helped us with.”

Montanaro agrees. “When I first came here, I wasn’t the kind of person who could just go up to someone and say, ‘I need help with this.’ Now it wouldn’t be an issue.”

The class has attracted like-minded students: curious, positive, forward-thinking problem solvers from other majors. By spring quarter, the class size had nearly tripled, with six students switching their majors to imaging science.

“It’s not an elective for us,” says Montanaro, from Victor, N.Y. “Everyone in imaging science has to take it. But there are kids who aren’t in imaging science who are in the class. They don’t have to be taking it.”

Prezioso, a native of Farmington Hills, Mich., was one of those students. The first-year biomedical photography major started attending the class in the fall out of curiosity and enrolled during winter quarter. He had heard his writing seminar classmates—“the original six”—talk about the project and, knowing about cameras, he offered to volunteer.

Now, Prezioso is a double major, excited about the intersection of biomedical photography and imaging science. He recently won funding from the Carlson Center to apply the polynomial texture mapping technology to biomedical photographic microscopy. “If it works, it could be a potential breakthrough in the form of tools for microscopy, and that’s completely combining my two majors right now.

“I think there is so much value in a student-driven, project-driven class where you are forced to go learn for yourself,” Prezioso continues. “Not being set down like a sponge and having knowledge thrown at you and hoping you catch it. You gain so much from the hands-on experience and the time invested with the topics that you’re learning or teaching yourself or going to a professor and having them teach you, but also with each other. Everyone plays an integral role, everyone has a specialty.”

The phase one imaging device is a finished tool that uses visible light and has a two-foot diameter range. The 17 students in the class are working on a proof of concept for phase two of the project: a novel multispectral device that will extend the instrument’s imaging capability to the infrared wavelength.

The students are committed to seeing the second phase to completion on their own time, over the summer and into next year—however long it takes. They are invested in the project with a passion that cannot be taught. In the end, perhaps the biggest reward belongs to Pow and Baum, who urged the students to act like scientists and, in doing so, stood back and watched it happen.


A. Sue Weisler

“This class has opened my mind to so many new opportunities that I never would have considered coming straight out of high school,” says imaging science major Ashley Miller, left. “It’s brought about research, new friends and a family of imaging people surrounding me.” Miller, Nadya Spice, center, and Scarlett Montanaro work on the instrument they helped design for the Freshman Imaging Project. Below, a close-up of a manuscript seen with the help of the instrument the students developed.