Teaching #anatomy online – constructive vs deconstructive modeling #onlineed

5 09 2015

I teach anatomy online – I have for eight years. Prior to putting anatomy online, I taught it in the F2F classroom for seventeen years.

I teach anatomy but, no, I don’t mail out dead cats (I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count). Instead, I use a constructive, rather than a deconstructive, model. I have nothing against dead cats. Some will say it is inhumane to use them. That’s not why I don’t do it. Our supplier used euthanized shelter cats. Some were fat cats, some scrawny, one even had a flank of healed up buckshot. I oversaw the dissection of hundreds of cats in my F2F days. Over the years, I came to realize that dissecting cats is, at best, a minimally instructive practice. In the eyes of students, it’s mostly just gross. Sometimes, it can even be traumatic. And, it bears little correlation to what a student would see in a live surgery. Those hundreds of cats? I performed several dozen rat kidney surgeries in grad school.  Want a graduate degree in anatomy or physiology?  Guarantee: there will be animals involved – or at least animal tissues.  Computers aren’t there yet for graduate level work.  For undergrads – yes, they are feasible for physiology.  The tanks of frogs that filled a wall of the physiology lab when I was an undergrad?  No longer necessary.  Whew!

So, if we have replaced the experience of pithing frogs with interactive physiology simulation programs (I use PhysioEx), why is the silver standard of undergrad anatomy instruction still the cat dissection?  Maybe it’s a gateway “get over the gross” pre-nursing activity?  Could be.  But it’s a whole different kind of gross than nursing students will ever deal with in real life.

What we want students to learn in the anatomy lab are the interactions and associations of the major body systems and organs.  There is another way to do this – construction of a realistic model.  In the eight years I have been teaching anatomy online,body example I’ve had several hundred students build anatomy models.  I require that they build them from scratch.  That can be a load of work.  But, the conceptual transfer allowed for by designing and building a model is demonstrated by each student. Over the span of a semester in my A&P I course, each student builds a life-size three-dimensional model of the bones, muscles, and nerves of the body – attached to a labeled body area tracing.  Each step is documented by photos (with student faces included to verify participation)  and submitted at each intermediate construction stage for grading. Students are allowed the freedom to use whatever materials they have on hand to build their models.  Bones must be anatomically accurate, with projections and depressions labeled. Each muscle must be individually constructed, of proper size, and attached at the correct origin and insertion. Through student feedback, and my assessment of their models, I am certain that they are absorbing far more about muscular anatomy than my previous students ever learned from dissection.

Often, those who advocate for a use of preserved animal dissection are those who have years of experience dissecting preserved cats, and far less live animal surgical experience.  I do have live animal experience. Knowing how different the structures of a live organism appear when compared to a preserved one, I firmly believe that cat dissection is no longer necessary for a valid undergraduate anatomy learning experience, particularly for muscle structure.

Yet, I must admit that there is some dissection benefit that a model cannot replicate. There is certainly value in the visual examination of the organs.  Quite the impact can be made on pre-nursing students when they feel the difference in the lungs of a cat from the house of a chain smoker versus the lungs of a cat not raised in that environment. That is an eye opening experience.  But, that isn’t enough for me to advocate mailing out preserved cats.

I have been teaching college anatomy and physiology for 25 years.  I’ve taught in cat dissection labs, as well as in human cadaver labs (the gold standard).  I’ve taught using model building and using anatomy quizzing apps.  Feedback from students on model building activities is extremely positive.  Course evaluations of my online anatomy courses regularly mention how valuable the students found the model building activities to be in their learning process.  I’m a definite convert from the cat lab to model lab system.  If, in the future, I return to teaching in a F2F environment, my model activities will be coming with me.

So, no – I have never mailed out a dead cat to an online student. There are better ways to learn anatomy.

[Model picture is used with the permission of the student who designed and constructed it].

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