Otterbein 3D capabilities put fossils in the hands of biology students


Lauren Heberling ’19

Thousands of miles away in a locked vault at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, are the fossilized remains of Homo naledi, an extinct species of hominid. However, with the help of 3D printers at The Point, the skull of Homo naledi is in our science center, within the quiet peaceful village of Westerville, Ohio.Otterbein 3D capabilities put fossils in the hands of biology students

In 2013, fossils of Homo naledi were discovered in a cave in South Africa. At the time, scientists believed the remains to be 2 million years old, but in 2017 the fossils were carbon dated to be between 335,000 and 236,000 years old. According to the timeline of evolution, this puts Homo naledi living during a time when more modern-looking hominids were appearing. This convinces scientists that Homo naledi is not a direct ancestor of humans, but rather an offshoot within the same genus.

Nevertheless, the discovery has filled a missing piece of evolution for scientists and provides insight into life of a new species. Findings as unique and recent as this are rarely ever shared with the public, but thanks to the free online database, MorphoSource, and the skills of Curtis Smith, Otterbein’s Maker Space and laboratory operations manager, students can hold the skull of Homo naledi in their hands.

“Students can learn more from a tangible object you can interact with, you’re able to see details and it becomes less of an idea and more of a concrete understanding,” said Smith.

The Homo naledi skull, along with other skull models, are being used by the Introduction to Biology class to learn about human evolution. Seven courses have used the hominid skull so far.

“It’s an amazing resource,” said Dr. Erin Ulrich, lab coordinator for the Science Center.

Ulrich expanded the possibilities of how 3D printing and the science department can collaborate, such as printing new parts for lab equipment when they break, rather than paying for new ones, or even creating medical technology.

As The Point continues to find opportunities to collaborate with other departments and share their resources, Otterbein continues to find unique ways for students to be closer to their work and attain the real life experiences students need to stand apart from the rest.