The Bates College Imaging Center: A Model for Interdisciplinarity and Collaboration

by Matthew J. Coté, Bates College

The Bates College Imaging and Computing Center (known on campus simply as the Imaging Center) is a new interdisciplinary facility designed to support Bates’s vision of a liberal arts education, as codified by its newly-adopted General Education Program. This program reflects the increasingly porous and mutable nature of disciplinary boundaries and emphasizes the effectiveness of teaching writing as a means of improving students’ ability to think, reason and communicate. The Imaging Center strives to further expand the reach of this program by promoting visual thinking and communication–serving as a catalyst for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. In many ways the Center embodies most of the ideas underpinning Bates’s new General Education Program and is a model on this campus for the kind of transformative work cyberinfrastructure will enable. Floorplan image courtesy of the Bates College Imaging and Computing Center.

The Imaging Center’s physical space, its imaging resources and its place within the college’s cyberinfrastructure, are all designed to foster interactions between scholars from disparate fields and to further the Center’s goal of promoting visual literacy. Traditional campus structures–whether organizational or architectural–are efficient from the administrative perspective, but often have the unintended consequence of reifying disciplinary boundaries. For example, the spatial grouping of faculty by academic discipline provides few opportunities for faculty from different fields to interact with each other, either purposefully or by happenstance, while doing their work. Such campus structures have significant pedagogical ramifications as well. They encourage students to pigeon-hole ideas and ways of thinking according to academic field rather than inspiring them to find connections between fields of inquiry.
These consequences, of course, are antithetical to the goals of academic programs intended to foster interdisciplinary thinking. To counter these effects, the Bates Imaging Center provides a visually-inviting space available to all members of the campus community. Its array of equipment and instrumentation, and its extensive computer networking, make it the campus hub for collaborative and interdisciplinary projects, especially those that are computationally intensive, apply visualization techniques, or include graphical or image-based components.

Imaging Center Public GalleryBates College Imaging Center Public Space
Imaging Center Public Gallery (photo courtesy of the
Bates College Imaging and Computing Center)

The Imaging Center’s central public gallery provides comfortable seating, readily accessible kiosk computers and wireless networking to encourage faculty and students to use the space for both planned and spontaneous meetings of small groups. To make more public the scholarly activities taking place within the Center, a contiguous array of three large flat-panel LCD monitors displays looped sequences of images created by faculty and students who are using the Center’s resources to support their work. Image sequences include, for example, micrographs obtained using the Center’s microscopes, digital photographs taken by students working in the fine arts, maps generated using GIS mapping software, and animated multidimensional graphs of political data. The sequences are designed to exemplify effective visual communication and to juxtapose work by faculty and students drawn from widely varied disciplines throughout the campus. The display publicizes the scholarly activities taking place within the Center, and by encouraging viewers to think more deeply about the images, cultivates more sophisticated approaches to the images they encounter or create in their own work.

The Center’s gallery is abutted on one side by an imaging lab and on the other by a computer room.The imaging lab contains a digital photography studio and a suite of optical microscope rooms with a shared sample preparation room. Driven by the goals of improving the accessibility of work that is conventionally done in isolation, and of making the Center’s resources available to as broad an audience as possible, the microscope rooms are each electronically linked with the computer room. This allows images obtained with the microscopes to be displayed for large groups in real time, complete with two-way audio communication between the microscope operator and the audience.

Imaging Lab (photo courtesy of the Bates College Imaging and Computing Center)

Imaging Lab (photo courtesy of the Bates College Imaging and Computing Center)

Computer Room (photo courtesy of the Bates College Imaging and Computing Center)

The Imaging Center’s resources are leveraged by a one-gigabit-per-second network that connects the Imaging Center to the campus’s Language Resource Center and the Digital Media Center (the latter supports audio and video work). In this way each center can be physically located for the convenience of its most frequent users yet large data files and other electronic resources can be readily shared between centers. Local storage of the large data sets and images is provided by a two terabyte storage array.

As the Imaging Center moves forward, its participation in the Internet2 consortium will provide wide bandwidth access to large databases such as those relied upon by users of GIS mapping software and bioinformatics researchers. It will also make it possible for scientists working on the Bates campus to operate specialized instrumentation located at large research institutions and to do so in real time. These capabilities will bring to a small liberal arts college in Maine the unfettered access to databases, equipment and distributed expertise that were formerly available only to those working in large research facilities.

As is true with cyberinfrastructure generally, it’s the Imaging Center’s people that make it work. Two full-time staff members–one with expertise in database management, computer hardware and software development and GIS mapping, and the other a microscopist and photographer with technical training in optics and imaging technologies–bring a wealth of experience to the Imaging Center. They support the Center’s users by training them to use unfamiliar tools and techniques. Some workshops and group training sessions are used for this purpose, but the widely varying schedules and backgrounds of the Center’s users render scheduled, “one size fits all” training sessions insufficient. To complement these offerings, the staff is developing electronic training materials that use imbedded hyperlinks to provide the background that some readers might be missing. These documents have the advantages of being readily customized and updated, allowing readers to focus their attention on those aspects of a topic that are particularly pertinent or unfamiliar. Because the documents are available to anyone with internet access, they can be used whenever and wherever the need arises.

As workers in an ever-expanding range of fields seek to express or explore ideas through expert use of images, and to find and convey meaning in large multidimensional data sets through increased visualization capability, there will be a concomitant demand for improved visual literacy. As a result, acquiring the ability to communicate and think visually will be seen as an integral part of a complete education. This realization has motivated the development of a new type of center whose impact is dramatically enhanced by recent advances in computer power and connectivity. With the Imaging Center providing a practical working model of interdisciplinarity and numerous examples of the power of visualization, Bates is well placed to take advantage of the new directions afforded by a well-deployed cyberinfrastructure.