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The Amazing Picture Machine! --
A Picture Resource on the Net for Teachers

We regret to inform you that the Amazing Picture Machine is no longer an active Web site. We are leaving this article live on Education World because there are some ideas here for using other picture libraries on the Web. The links at the bottom of this article will take you to some of those other picture resources.

Have you ever tried to describe something to your students that could be easily illustrated with a simple picture? Now you don't have to be van Gogh to share those concepts with your class! The Amazing Picture Machine will help you locate the pictures you seek on the Internet! Included: Sample lessons that make use of online picture resources across the grades.

The Internet's resources abound -- audio, video, text, and most of all, images. But what good are images on the Net if you can't find them when you need them? The creators of The Amazing Picture Machine recognized that teachers needed a gateway to the pictures that are available on the Web, and that it should be comprehensive and easy to use. The Amazing Picture Machine's picture database will help any teacher make the abstract concrete! After all, seeing is believing!


If a picture is worth a thousand words, then The Amazing Picture Machine is worth millions! This searchable database of images found on the Internet allows educators to enter keywords and locate pictures to use in their classrooms. It is provided by the North Central Regional Technology in Education Consortium (NCRTEC), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The consortium's mission is "to help schools and adult literacy programs to develop technology-embedded practices that lead to improved and engaged learning for students."

Whit Anderson, an instructional designer for NCRTEC, developed the idea for The Amazing Picture Machine more than two years ago. "I wrote the script that finds pictures in our database," Anderson explains. "Jim Mikoda, a colleague of mine, finds the pictures and adds them to the database."

"In the beginning we worked together to create a list of pictures that we thought would be particularly useful to students and teachers," adds Anderson. "We also met with teachers to find out what kinds of pictures they thought we should include."

Anderson and his associates had two goals in mind when the project began. The first was to help students and teachers quickly and easily find high quality pictures and maps that are available on the Internet. "Our database provides a safe source of pictures aimed at teachers and students," Anderson says. "An enormous amount of information is available in pictures, and we wanted to help make it available to schools."

The second goal was to provide an entry level activity for teachers who were new to the Internet. "We wanted an activity that was directly related to the classroom that would provide immediate results for teachers," Anderson elaborates. "We hope that after teachers have used The Amazing Picture Machine they will become more interested in the uses of technology in their classroom, and perhaps look at other NCRTEC resources."


Collecting good image resources takes time and effort. "Jim Mikoda searches the Internet for pictures, writes a short description (with key words) and then adds them to the database," says Anderson. "The search engine records what pictures are searched for and Jim uses that list to decide what should be added to the database. We also get e-mail requests from teachers and students to find specific pictures."

"Some search engines allow you to set their controls so they only look for files that end with .gif and .jpeg [indicators of picture files]," Mikoda explains. "They may also have a 'Search Pictures' command. I take advantage of those sites."

Mikoda is careful to choose reliable, safe sources. "I also check to see if the topic or subject that I'm looking for has an 'official' Web page," says Mikoda. "If I wanted to find a picture of Mark McGwire, I would first look for the St. Louis Cardinals home page or a Major League Baseball site. It is much less likely that these Web pages will disappear overnight, ruining any links I might make to them."


After the initial development of the image database, Anderson recognized that another step could be taken that would make it even easier for teachers to make use of the picture resources -- create lesson plans! "Last summer I worked with several other people at the NCRTEC to get a group of innovative teachers to create lesson plans related to using pictures and other graphical resources," he recalls. Those teachers created a series of lesson plans linked to The Amazing Picture Machine's resources.

June Apaza, a fifth grade teacher from Hot Springs, South Dakota, is one of the innovative educators Anderson was looking for. She created the lesson plan What Do You See? The activity is designed for students in grades 3 to 6 and involves descriptive writing techniques. The students examine photos of artwork from the database of The Amazing Picture Machine and use descriptive language to answer a set of guiding questions. Ultimately, their vivid paragraphs, which describe various pieces of art, become a museum catalog! Throughout the experience, the students reinforce the steps of the writing process: prewriting, writing, revising, proofreading, and publishing. They edit their work with their peers.

Designed by teacher Pam Hall, Fractions in Pictures integrates the use of images in the teaching of fractions. Students use pictures of the flags of many different countries to illustrate fractional parts and operations. Then they search for other types of images that relate well to fractional study. The lesson is ideal for students in grades 5 through 8. As a wrap-up to one activity, the students draw their own flags that can easily be divided into specific fractional parts.

Where Did You Get Those Ears? is an activity for grades 9 and 10 from high school science teacher Barb Neureither. In this simulation, students use pictures from The Amazing Picture Machine database to better understand genetic traits such as tongue rolling and widow's peaks as they pretend that they are "parents." The information they gather is used to produce a "baby" with various genetic traits. When the activity comes to a close, the students role-play a genetic counselor who attempts to explain the traits of the "baby" in relation to those of its "parents."


Another resource from The Amazing Picture Machine is its Good Photograph and Image Sites page. Here Mikoda has highlighted some of the best resources he has found for images on the Internet. A short description of each page accompanies a link to the site.

In order to choose the best resources, Mikoda attempts to put himself in the place of an educator. "The first thing I consider is, 'Is this a site that will be useful to teachers and students?' If I were a social studies teacher doing a unit on Bosnia and Herzegovina, or a student doing a report on the topic, I would probably want to have a map of the country to display. But if the atlas or globe in the classroom is more than 5 years old, the country won't be on it. So usefulness in the classroom is a high priority."

He also considers the amount of time that images take to load -- a priority for teachers in the classroom! "High quality photographs and fast downloading are also things I look for in good sites," he says. "Nobody wants to wait three minutes for a computer to download a grainy 300K photograph. I try to find sites that have good quality images that take a reasonable amount of time to access."

Period and Style for Designers is one site that Mikoda has included in his list of exceptional resources. This site from Professor Hugh Lester of Tulane University offers pictures of architectural styles throughout historical periods. Beginning with the ancient world, the site takes the visitor on a virtual voyage through the buildings, decorations, and furniture of each architectural era up to the present.

The well-known WebMuseum is another site that Mikoda has found to be full of excellent images for classroom use. Its Famous Artworks exhibition includes an index of famous artists and one organized by themes. If you are looking for a picture of a known piece of art, chances are you'll find it here! Works by Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, and Leonardo da Vinci are among the features of this online collection.

Wonders never cease! With The Seven Wonders: Other Monuments, the pictures of wonders never seem to cease. Mikoda's choice of this site among the best of those he has examined is not surprising. It contains photographs of forgotten, modern, and natural wonders. This site is the perfect place for students to find pictures for their reports on famous locations like the Taj Mahal, The Parthenon, and The Great Wall of China.


Educators report that The Amazing Picture Machine has been very useful. "We receive feedback from people using the site," says Anderson. "Some of the feedback is from people suggesting places where we can find good pictures, some of the feedback is from people asking us to find specific pictures, and occasionally someone writes us with a pat on the back."

Mikoda often hears from educators who have a mission for him. "I receive several requests to perform searches for teachers and students during the week, and I try to accommodate all of them," he explains. "In the past, I've looked for photographs of the Berlin Wall, Albert Einstein, and aardvarks. You have no idea how hard it is to find a good aardvark photograph. I add links to the photographs to The Amazing Picture Machine, and reply to the e-mail with a list of Internet addresses where the types of images they are looking for can be found."

If you have a good source in mind for The Amazing Picture Machine, Anderson invites you to share it. "We are always interested in hearing about sites that have good pictures that we can link to," he says.

Related Sites



  • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Imagebase Artistic images fill this unique Web site. Tour the collections of the museums or search the database. Try the "ZOOM" option to view some of the works up close. You'll find African art, ancient art, American and European paintings, and more.
  • SunSITE Image Finder This site really lives up to its title as an "image finder." From a single page, you may search several picture databases. The site links to the National Library of Australia, the American Memory collection of the Library of Congress, NASA Ames Research Center, and others. Let this site do the searching for you!
  • WebSEEk Images on the Web are indexed here by topic, or you may search with a keyword. Subjects like architecture, sports, animals, and transportation are subdivided into more specific groups and contain many picture resources. WebSEEk also has the attractive feature of thumbnail images, so you can preview the selection and choose the right picture for your lesson.
  • AltaVista Almost anyone who has surfed the Web has encountered the search engine AltaVista. What you may not know about this tool is that you can use it to locate pictures as well as Web pages. Simply enter the word "image" in the search box with a colon after it and the topic you are looking for, for example "image:apple."
  • HotBot This search engine also has the power to search specifically for images. From its home page, click on "More Search Options." Enter your keywords and check the box beside "image." HotBot will return a list of Web sites that contain pictures of your subject.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

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Article originally published 11/23/1998
Last updated 02/03/2006