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Culture

Digital cameras, in school and on call

Professions as diverse as medicine, teaching and architecture are finding everyday uses for digital images.

    To his tools of the trade--surgical navigation equipment, intramedullary nails and plate and screw sets--Dr. Steven A. Olson, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Duke University Medical Center, has added a simple 2-megapixel camera.

    When a patient is brought into the emergency room with, say, severe skeletal trauma, caused by a car accident or a shooting, one of the first steps for Dr. Olson's medical interns is to photograph the crushed bones and shredded tendons. The medical team then realigns the bones and applies a sterile dressing as a prelude to surgery.

    In years past, Dr. Olson said, surgeons would have removed the dressing each time they wanted to study the damage to plan the surgery. Now, the resolution of the images taken with the camera is enough to provide fine detail of the injury from various angles.

    "We can leave the wound covered in the meantime, so there is no continual contamination from exposure to the outside environment," Dr. Olson said. "By using the images, we can make a treatment plan for this patient."

    Digital cameras--praised as one of the most rapidly adopted consumer gadgets--are finding usefulness in a variety of professions that traditionally have little or nothing to do with photography.

    "In the consumer realm, our in-boxes are being flooded with baby pictures," said John Maeda, a professor of media and science at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But in the professional realm, it is transforming professional fields because it is so easy to discuss something not simply based on text--which is what we were limited to before."

    A teacher's pet
    Rebecca Rupert, a language arts and communications teacher at Aurora Alternative High School in Bloomington, Ind., brought digital photography into her classroom with a big splash. Last month, the students in her civil rights literature class went beyond their assigned readings by traveling to Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham in Alabama and to Memphis to photograph their impressions of a region inextricably linked to the civil rights movement. Back in class, the students transformed their snapshots into photo essays, supplemented by text.

    "Having visual literacy is really important and I try to bring that into my classes as much as possible," Rupert said. "I want kids to be able to use visual medium to express themselves and to communicate in words what they are seeing--it is another kind of knowing."

    More schools have incorporated digital cameras across their curriculums. In higher grades, students use them to document science experiments, while younger children illustrate alphabet books by taking pictures of objects familiar to them. Teachers often prepare instruction booklets for their students with easy-to-follow steps illustrated with photographs.

    Some teachers fret that if digital cameras are not part of a classroom, the digital divide will widen. But they note that digital cameras are one of the most affordable technologies. "Most school budgets can provide some digital cameras for every school, as opposed to more expensive, sophisticated technology," said Sandy Beck, an instructional technology specialist at Forsyth County Schools in Georgia.

    Imagining home
    At 745 Fox St. in the Bronx sits a dilapidated but landmark-designated building dated 1850. Developers have proposed constructing a low-income housing complex to rise behind the old building. But they must first show the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission that the new structure will not obscure the landmark building.

    Tony Shitemi, an architect with Urban Architectural Initiatives in Manhattan, which designed the housing complex, enlisted the help of a digital camera to show how the building's historical value would be preserved. Using image-editing software, Shitemi spliced the rendering of the new building onto the picture of the old building, which also was digitally restored.

    Other fields that create living and working spaces, like construction and interior design, are also integrating the use of digital cameras. Interior designers can photograph sofas at furniture stores, for example, then hold up the liquid crystal display within a room they are arranging to visualize how well the design works.

    HNTB, an engineering, architecture and construction management company in Kansas City, Mo., oversees projects that can extend over a decade. When building highways, HNTB feeds panoramic digital photographs into a database to allow clients to see how the work is progressing without visiting the site.

    The picture of health
    Skin conditions are often the first sign of HIV infection. But in sub-Saharan Africa--where AIDS is a full-blown epidemic--dermatologists are a rarity. To bridge the gap, Dr. Roy M. Colven, the head of dermatology at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, studies the digital images and written descriptions e-mailed to him by primary-care doctors in South African provincial hospitals. He received a Fulbright Award last year to set up a long-distance consulting program based in Cape Town, South Africa, where he is working for another month.

    This way, from his office at the University of Cape Town, Dr. Colven "sees" about 12 patients a month, a number that is steadily growing.

    Dr. Colven, who uses a 4-megapixel camera, said the resolution was good enough for effective diagnosis of skin diseases. "It is relatively low resolution," he said, "but this spares file size on a relatively low bandwidth e-mail system."