Teaching with Artifacts: Virtual Instruction with Future Engineers

By Brooke Guthrie

Instruction sessions with artifacts are hands-on, interactive, and some of my favorite sessions to teach. At Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, where I work with the History of Medicine Collections, artifacts are used alongside rare books, manuscripts, and more in both undergraduate and graduate instruction. Students are encouraged to hold and feel the weight of a medical instrument. They are asked to guess the purpose of a device while closely examining the construction and materials used. With instruction shifted online, how could we continue to use artifacts as a teaching tool and what lessons could we learn from this change? How well would an amputation saw translate into a virtual environment? Could I show the design elements of a bloodletting tool or a modern IUD over Zoom? Fortunately, while I couldn’t completely replicate a regular session, the move online was more successful than expected both as a way to share collections with students and other members of the campus community and as way to reconsider teaching with artifacts in the post-pandemic future.

With instruction shifted online, how could we continue to use artifacts as a teaching tool and what lessons could we learn from this change?

Instruction to engineering students offered the perfect opportunity to test artifacts in the virtual classroom. Along with two colleagues—Rachel Ingold, Curator for the History of Medicine Collections and Sarah Park, Librarian for Engineering and Computer Science—I began brainstorming ways to connect with the biomedical engineering program before the pandemic. The pandemic prevented groups from visiting the library for over a year, but virtual instruction was a useful method for building and sustaining new connections with students, staff, and instructors in the engineering program during that time.

In March of 2021, I led a “Lunch & Learn” session for the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies. Part of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, the Center pairs the development of medical technologies with community education to prevent and treat cervical and breast cancers. The Center’s undergraduates, graduate students, and staff were interested in learning about the history of women’s healthcare and the development of medical instruments like the speculum. Because of the interest in instruments, I wanted to show the items “live,” instead of using photos, to give a better sense of motion, size, and construction. Initially, I experimented with a handful of tools, including a smartphone mounted on a tripod, but I couldn’t quite get the hang of it and didn’t feel confident.

Ultimately, I settled on a Hovercam document camera borrowed from our reading room. With this device connected to my laptop, I could share my screen in Zoom to show my movements in real time. I lifted the camera with foam book supports to better capture larger items. I was pleased with the ability to provide short demonstrations of instruments. I was also able to show images and text in detail, lift flaps in flapbooks, and unfold pamphlets. Items that worked well ranged from obstetrical forceps and contraceptive sponges to midwifery manuals and YWCA flyers. I consider the session a success: it was my first time doing “live” virtual instruction, attendees were engaged throughout, and the group was interested enough to schedule an in-person visit for this fall.

Image shows a Hovercam connected to a laptop that is scanning a printed book. The book is resting on a book cradle.
Hovercam set-up showing illustrations in Angélique du Coudray’s midwifery text Abrégé de l’art des accouchements (1777). All images credit of the author.
Two side-by-side images show a hand in a blue latex glove. The lefthand image shows a small, round device in the palm of the hand. On the right, the hand shows a large, metal clamp.
Student view of Hovercam instruction with a Dalkon Shield intrauterine device and a pair of Smellie-style obstetrical forceps.

My second experience with this method of instruction came about thanks to the first. One of the attendees, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, asked for a similar session for two sections of her summer Duke Pre-College class. The class, “Engineering Solutions for Global Health: The Human-Centered Design Process,” is a three-week intensive class for high school students. The students were interested in women’s health as well as the development of general medical tools like surgical knives. I largely worked with the same artifacts and books from the earlier session, but I edited the presentation slightly for a high school audience with less grounding in reproductive anatomy and medical terminology. While I wasn’t able to do any formal assessment, I think both of the Pre-College sessions went well based on informal evidence. Students asked excellent questions throughout. For example, they asked about the impact of antiseptic theory on instrument design, the role of midwives in a community, and who historically had access to medical knowledge and education. According to the instructor, students referred back to the artifacts in later class meetings and also wrote about the session in an internal class blog.

Hovercam set-up showing a Civil War-era amputation kit.

Artifacts carried over surprisingly well to pandemic teaching. I was able to work with students in a year without in-person instruction and connect to new groups that will hopefully become regular users of our collections. However, creating a session with physical objects during a pandemic was time-consuming—partially due to having limited onsite time to select items and partially due to needing practice using the Hovercam. I also worked with technology and taught in a new way which is daunting at the best of times. Mostly, though, this method—while good for sharing collections—did not facilitate interaction among students and with the artifacts as well as in-person teaching. Despite trying to make the sessions more of a conversation than a presentation, I was always (and obviously) the person with the instruments in hand and was doing the majority of the talking—which is the opposite of what I strive for with instruction.

Artifacts carried over surprisingly well to pandemic teaching. I was able to work with students in a year without in-person instruction and connect to new groups that will hopefully become regular users of our collections.

More positively, planning these sessions required careful consideration of which items to include and a focus on the stories I wanted to tell through the artifacts. I wanted to avoid giving the students artifact-overload and hoped students would leave the session saying something more than “cool knife.” Sessions with budding engineers offered the chance to look beyond the artifact itself and, using related print material, explore what an item can tell us about the history of midwifery, the politics of contraception, or the racist origins of gynecology. In this way, the pandemic-induced shift away from physically handling the artifacts contains a small silver lining and fostered some dialogue (if not as much as desired) about the broader historical context surrounding an often-basic looking instrument. For students learning about human-centered design, this approach provided more space to let the human stories associated with these instruments shine through and consider the real people who are both helped and harmed as new instruments are developed. The questions asked by students largely focused on this human element suggesting that this approach of using selected artifacts as a lens into a broader history is worth expanding into the physical classroom.

Although I am looking forward to returning to the classroom, “live” virtual instruction is a good post-pandemic option for connecting with groups beyond campus and making our artifacts more accessible to people unable to easily visit us. The learning curve was not insurmountable, and the technology got easier with practice. Most importantly, for me as an instructor, these sessions led me to reflect on how I teach with artifacts and how to best design a class around artifacts now and in the future.


Brooke Guthrie (she/her/hers) is a Research Services Librarian at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library where she works with the History of Medicine Collections and Duke University Archives.