The IPT Project: Image Processing for Teaching


The technological revolution that has transformed industry and commerce worldwide is based on advances in mathematics and science. However, technological education has institutionally been kept distinct from its constituent subjects. The reason is historical. Technological education has grown out of the vocational sector, which addresses the needs of students preparing to enter the workplace directly, while mathematics and science are part of the academic sector, traditionally concerned with preparing students for advanced education in academia. 

However, these traditional distinctions are rapidly changing. Academic educators are recognizing that few of their students are heading specifically toward careers in science and mathematics but they are heading toward being productive members of society, regardless of career. Reform efforts in science and math academics are emphasizing habits of mind, critical thinking, relations to societal and technological issues, etc., as more appropriate goals for students. Thus, science and mathematics educators are increasingly thinking in terms of vocational objectives. 

At the same time, the vocational education sector is recognizing the changed nature of the workplace. Many 19th century industrial skills are irrelevant to the current workplace. Moreover, with the rapid advance of technology, specific current skills will become irrelevant by the start of the 21st century. Technological education must meet the needs of business and industry for workers who are flexible, adaptable problem-solvers.[1] In short, the objectives of technological education and of science and mathematics education are merging rapidly.

An Overview of the IPT Project 

The Image Processing for Teaching project was developed at the University of Arizona in response to the NSF's call for projects to introduce high technology into classrooms. Begun six years ago, the project's original objectives were to explore how state-of-the-art digital image processing might be used to give students an attractive entree into the study of science and mathematics, and in particular, used to reach those students not traditionally motivated in these subjects. 

So the Image Processing for Teaching (IPT) project began as an experiment. It seemed plausible that image processing would serve as an effective and exciting way to attract students to science and technology, and to offer open-ended opportunities for exploration, discovery and quantitative analysis. On the other hand, we recognized that not all good ideas come to fruition in practice. 

Thus, it has been gratifying that evidence points to the remarkable effectiveness of image processing in education. Exciting things are happening with IPT in the classroom. While image manipulation is attractive and fun, it also inevitably leads to meaningful exploration of the image's content, and appreciation of the mathematics built into the process on many levels. IPT nurtures the processes of investigation and problem-solving. We find great success and interest among students who might not have been expected to do well in conventional academic classes.

One result of the project's success has been a considerable demand for IPT support from the technological-education community. Educators and program administrators tell us that IPT is a unique way to engage their students, to provide intimate familiarity with a wide range of current technology, and (most importantly) to develop problem-solving abilities that will apply in the workplace even as technology continues its rapid advances. 

IPT is also addressing the technology education needs at community colleges and secondary schools. This is being done by developing appropriate curricular applications for their students as well as sufficient training for their faculty to feel confident in using image processing as a technical and educational tool. The project continues to reflect a broad interdisciplinary perspective, collaboration among educators and technical practitioners, and an emphasis on open-ended problem-solving that have always characterized it. 

Since IPT has proven to be an effective medium for learning, the project is now in its dissemination phase. This includes materials development and widespread teacher education, via intensive workshops, held on site at schools around the country that make a substantial commitment to image processing in their curricula.[2-6] 

In summary, a central challenge of technological education is that it must be general enough to meet the needs of rapid, ongoing change in the workplace, while delivering specific skills. IPT provides one vehicle for meeting that challenge: 

  • IPT promotes problem-solving skills that will never go out of date; 
  • IPT provides computing and image-related technical skills that will form the basis for a wide range of opportunities in the decades to come; and 
  • IPT provides the specific image processing skills for activities now being widely implemented in the workplace.

Digital Image Processing 

During the 1980s, the technology of digital image processing moved from experimental origins, largely driven by the requirements of space exploration and biomedicine, to widespread high-technology applications. In the 1990s, image processing is being integrated into nearly every sector of industrial and agricultural production. This technology offers the ability to manipulate images to bring out features and properties that had previously been difficult or impossible to perceive. 

Image processing is somewhat analogous to word processing. It facilitates the manipulation of visual information and is revolutionizing the ways in which such data are perceived, analyzed, communicated, stored and utilized. 

However, imaging data differs from verbal information in significant ways. From a cognitive point of view, images convey different kinds of information than words. For some individuals, images are the most effective medium of communication. Also, in regards to information theory, images are by far the fastest and most efficient way to deliver information to the human brain. 

The subject of image processing combines high technology, information theory and cognitive issues. Accordingly, it is a natural area in which technology can, and should, be connected with teaching and learning. As word processing and other computer applications are finding increased roles in the classroom, image processing is the next logical (and probably inevitable) step. And as image processing becomes an increasingly widespread tool of the workplace, it must become a commensurate part of technological preparation programs. 

Image processing is revolutionizing many major areas of science and industry (see sidebar). It allows pictures of photographic quality to be manipulated by a computer. Processing includes measurement, contrast enhancement, false coloring, animation, filtering, etc. Users are empowered and engaged in ways not possible with other image media, including most computer-accessed multimedia. 

We emphasize that the images used in IPT activities are not just pretty pictures. They are original data, in digital form, taken from a wide range of R&D areas. IPT teachers and their students thus manipulate original, real-world data as they do their image processing.

Integration Into Curricula 

The success of the current IPT project has created a demand from the technological education community for application of IPT to the preparation of students who enter the workplace directly from high school, technical school or community college. Hardware for IPT systems is now widely available in these educational settings and continues to become increasingly affordable and powerful. The result has been a demand for IPT professional-development workshops for faculty, program development consulting, and curriculum materials. Accordingly, IPT's programs for technological education is comprised of those components.

Workshops to Train Faculty 
Providing faculty nationwide with inservice education and professional development workshops on IPT is a major focus. Training is mandatory if they are to acquire the expertise to implement image processing in their classes and instructional laboratories. 

IPT workshops are designed for groups of up to 18 participants, meeting together for a total of three to five days. The curriculum targets instructors who are proficient in their subject areas, but may have little or no computer experience. Approximately 2,000 teachers have already taken IPT workshops. We have worked with some traditional vocational educators who are classic "technophobes," as well as extremely advanced technical education faculty. Workshops are adjusted to the level of each group's expertise. 

The workshop curriculum provides background on image processing; hands-on, "how-to" use of NIH Image (an image processing program developed by the National Institute of Health for its own purposes now available for other uses) plus other software; available sources of digital imagery (from industrial, agricultural, biomedical other technical arenas as well as images generated by the participants themselves); and an introduction to IPT curriculum materials (described below). 

The workshops use many of the same activities that were originally designed for faculty participants to take back and apply to their own classrooms. For some workshop groups, we expand our coverage of data acquisition via digitizing video, scanning techniques, optical imaging, multimedia connections and the Internet.

Creating IPT Curricula Materials 
The IPT project -- through a creative alliance of teachers, scientists, and technicians -- has developed extensive curriculum materials. Activities are designed to lead students and teachers into active inquiry, investigation and technological problem-solving. 

Materials development for technological education is guided by an advisory board that includes technology educators from colleges and schools, researchers engaged in creating new industrial applications of image processing, and representatives from business and industry. This board ensures that our materials are relevant and appropriate to the needs of the workplace and classroom -- now and for the future. 

For academic subjects, it has been a relatively straightforward process to index IPT activities with subject curricula because the curricula are widely standardized, and (especially in the case of much of science and mathematics) unchanged for about a century. 

Curricula in vocational-technical education represent a more challenging "moving target." They constantly change in response to technological developments as well as the shifting needs of the workplace. Therefore, courses and curricula are far more heterogeneous than academic science and mathematics subjects. Because the IPT project is a national development and dissemination effort, we must address this heterogeneity that is intrinsic to vocational-technical education. Technology educators have strongly encouraged us to develop materials that address the basic academic core of technological education, using image processing activities that are placed in workplace contexts.

Examples of IPT Activities 

Consider the following examples of IPT technological education curriculum activities. The IPT Chemistry activity (Salt, Soda, and Sand), originally designed for science education, uses data from electron microscopy and x-ray fluorescence imaging to identify elemental components of mixtures and compounds using logical image-pasting arithmetic to duplicate the logical processes of analytical chemistry. The same process is used on the quality control line of microchip manufacturers to identify misplaced atoms. This example illustrates the confluence of science and applied technology, as well as IPT's critical role in readying students for a changing workplace. 

Similarly, IPT biomedical activities, such as our lung-volume activity (Out of Breath) that was originally developed for Navajo middle-school math classes, are recognized by students as connected to the real world of work. Native American students on the Tohono O'odham reservation, for example, have identified IPT as a key to preparing for potential careers in medical technology. 

IPT technological education activities are being developed in versions appropriate for secondary-school through community-college students. We have found that when students learn the fundamentals of image processing at one grade level or in one subject, the experience allows them to carry it much further in other subjects and as they advance in grade level. Thus, IPT curriculum materials support the process of articulation between high school and college and also between academic subjects and technical preparation. 

IPT materials are published on CD-ROMs that contain the digital images used in activities plus all the necessary software; accompanying manuals describe the various activities. Until now, most materials have been distributed via our workshops, but a line of subject-specific CD-ROMs called the HIP (Hands-on Image Processing) Series is now available for direct distribution. HIP packages include HIP for Educators and, for students, HIP Biology and HIP Chemistry.

Follow-up & Outreach 

The IPT project offers a variety of follow-up mechanisms to aid faculty and teachers. A two-day follow-up workshop is available to reinforce technical skills and to address practical issues of implementation. All IPT educators have access to toll-free telephone support, electronic mail/bulletin board access and an annual IPT national conference. 

IPT has developed an active national community of educators and their students who use image processing in classes. The size and commitment of this community testifies to the role of image processing as an exciting and effective medium for personal exploration and discovery. 

Richard Greenberg is Professor of Planetary Sciences, Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education, and Director of the Science and Mathematics Education Center at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz. He is the founder and director of the Image Processing for Teaching project at the University of Arizona. E-mail: [email protected]


  1. Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), What Work Requires of Schools, U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1991. See also SCANS' Learning a Living (1992) and Skills and Tasks for Jobs (1992).
  2. Greenberg, R. (1992), "Scanning the Images of Science," The Science Teacher, 59(8), pp.14-18.
  3. Greenberg, R. & Franklin, K. (1992), "Image Processing for Teaching in a Navajo School Setting," J. Navajo Education, IX(2), pp.23-29.
  4. Greenberg, R. et al. (1993), "Image Processing for Teaching," Journal of Science Education and Technology, 2, pp.469-480.
  5. Raphael, J. & Greenberg, R. (1995), "Image Processing: A State-of-the-Art Way to Learn Science," Educational Leadership, 53-2, pp.34-37.
  6. Raphael, J. & Greenberg, R. (1995), "Computers in Public Schools: Changing the Image With Image Processing," Bulletin of National Association of Secondary School Principals, 79, pp.90-97.

Products mentioned: 
IPT curriculum materials (published as the "HIP" series of CD-ROMs and activity manuals), as well as teacher-education workshops, are available from the university's non-profit Center for Image Processing in Education, Tucson, AZ, (800) 322-9884.

The Image Processing for Teaching project is funded by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Image Processing in the Workplace

Image processing has become widespread in the modern workplace. Advances in this technology have reached the point where its operational processes and controls are carried out by skilled technicians. Ongoing development ensures that demand for image processing skills will increase in the years to come. Following are examples of image-oriented technical job areas that involve, or soon will involve, digital image processing. Many imaging tasks listed here are in a transitional stage to digital analysis. Those applications still being developed are currently done by teams of researchers, degreed engineers or technicians. Later these applications will be handed over to technicians.

Agriculture Agricultural technicians work on large farm operations and at biological field stations run by state and federal agencies. Even small farms often have family or staff members who provide basic technical support, based on hands-on farm experience, high-school vocational education, and local specialized community-college courses. Other jobs areas such as urban agriculture (landscape design, horticulture) plus range and natural resource management also involve increasingly large roles for technicians. Technical tasks in these settings that involve image analysis currently done by technicians include: Soils testing and characterization, crop condition evaluation, resource inventory and management, and stress evaluation for effects of heat, insects, drought, etc. These tasks involve microscopic analysis of leaves and soils, and daily interpretation of multi-spectral satellite and aerial imagery. Digital image processing is improving accuracy and productivity in all these areas.

Aviation Imaging techniques are widely used in structural testing in manufacture and failure analysis. The IPT activity "Whatever happened to 7504 Charley" simulates such an investigation. Image processing reveals features not originally visible. Imaging is used in traffic operations and control, and in on-board aircraft operations.

Environment Technicians are involved in remote sensing (from space and air) of biological and physical conditions in the environment. Image processing is also being used for water quality analysis. Hazardous waste sites are monitored by robotic digital cameras, and image processing helps identify containment failures.

Graphic Communications & Business Image processing is now being used in record keeping and archiving. The modern digital print shop uses image processing routinely, as d'es marketing (product display) and advertising art. Similarly in journalism, which pioneered electronic image transfer early in the century, digital image processing has become increasingly used.

Manufacturing Image processing is already widely used in manufacturing process control and in quality control, particularly in high-tech industries. As mentioned above, microchip manufacturers employ electron microscopy to ensure that materials are properly placed and formed. Other applications are widespread in the electronics and optics industries. In mechanical production, non-destructive structural analysis and testing involve x-ray and other imaging techniques. Thus, for example, the welding and machining fields have a strong need for workers capable of using the new technologies for analysis of these images. New workers entering the field with these skills are at a distinct advantage. CAD/CAM and related programs are now widely used; automated process control will use image processing in the near future. In the textile and fiber industries, imaging is used to test and define the character of fibers, the nature of weave, including porosity and structure (e.g. the IPT activity "Cover Up"), and in a variety of aspects of the design and production process.

Medical Technology Digital image processing was originally motivated in large part by the needs of biomedicine. Image-based work is done by support technicians in medical labs and clinics. This imaging is becoming increasingly digital as laboratories and clinicians work to extract the most information possible while minimizing invasion and using new imaging techniques. Examples of image-based work performed by technicians that now (or will soon) use digital image processing are blood smear analysis, microscopic cell counts and measurement, parasite identification, characterizing cell types and pathologies, medical and dental x-ray analysis, ultrasound and other new imaging technologies.

Mining In a modern mining operation a large fraction of operational staff work in front of computer monitors. Mining engineers are developing automated image-processing systems for characterizing rock size distribution on conveyor belts for production process control.  Environmental applications include leaching field management (debris size distribution, talus slope mechanics, etc.) and regional aerial mapping. Mineral exploration, including searches for oil and gas, relies on multispectral remote sensing imaging and digital image analysis. Mapping and photogrammetry of open-pit operations use digital analysis of aerial imaging. Image processing is just now being integrated into the daily processes of mining operations. In the next few years it will become part of the work of production and maintenance technicians. Any task that now uses a microscope (e.g., mineral analysis) will be done with image processing in the years to come, according to representatives of the mining industry.

Security and Law Enforcement Image processing enhances the effectiveness of all imaging techniques and is used in surveillance, robotic imaging in fire fighting and hazard control, forensic analysis, arson analysis, fingerprint analysis, airport luggage x-ray security, etc.

Utilities Utilities are using image processing for monitoring infrastructure (including using aerial survey imagery to catalog above ground poles and lines, imaging of pipeline status, non-destructive testing, etc.). Similarly, satellite and aerial images are used in utility-related environmental assessment.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.