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Digital cadavers bring students a deeper understanding of anatomy, physiology

Digital cadavers just one of many teaching innovations at CISA.
February 26, 2018

Anatomage Table at ASU one of only three in Arizona — and only one used by undergrads

The challenge of learning human anatomy and physiology can be daunting for many undergraduates: identifying all 206 bones and their every bump, notch and groove; the 320 muscle pairs; the structures and associated tissues of all of the body’s other organ systems — and articulating how all those parts and systems miraculously work together.

To help students master this material, Arizona State University's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts is integrating an innovative visualization tool, the Anatomage Table, into the anatomy and physiology learning experience at the Downtown Phoenix campus.

Adopted by many of the world's leading medical schools, the table is one of only three in Arizona and is the only one to be used in an undergraduate program (the others are used in a graduate program at Northern Arizona University and at Mayo Clinic School of Medicine).

“About 2,000 undergraduate students will engage with the technology in our beginning and advanced anatomy and physiology courses over the course of a year,” said principal lecturer Richard Bauer, who has headed up the faculty of Science, Math and Social Science in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts since the university opened its Downtown Phoenix campus in 2006.

Bauer’s faculty serves students in all of ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus colleges, providing foundational and general-studies courses needed by majors in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation, the College of Health Solutions, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, and the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

“The majority of the students who take these courses want to enter health-related professions, and this tool will help to more fully prepare them, nicely complementing the anatomical models, texts, plastinatesDonated tissue in which polymers have replaced body fluids. and cadavers,” Bauer said.

RELATED: Anatomage Table is just one of many teaching innovations at CISA

Like a textbook come to life

A month into the spring semester, as the Anatomage technology has begun to be integrated into lab work, the faculty, teaching staff, and students are excited about the table’s features and capabilities.

“The clarity of the images on the table screen is super, like that of a textbook but completely 3-D,” said senior Jessica Lehman, a nursing major who is in her second year working as an instructional assistant in the 200-level anatomy and physiology lab sections. “As a user you have full control of where you move. You can click through each layer of the body, removing one system at a time, or look at an entire system at once. You can choose to searchGet a feel for the experience of using the Anatomage visuals at by organ, by body system or by name of a structure.”

Having this additional touchpoint helps students understand context and establish the content in long-term memory, noted lecturer Jeff Kingsbury. 

“We all learn in different ways,” Kingsbury said. “And being able to rotate the body from any angle to see all perspectives, students discover for themselves, and can better visualize, the connectedness of body systems and how the function of a structure dictates the anatomical form. 

“In thinking about the job of the lungs,” he continued, “with the table we can zoom in to illustrate how the composition of lung tissue enlarges the surface area to impact the whole system.”   

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Sustainability, access and repetition are other benefits of using the table. 

For Kingsbury’s advanced dissection students, the table provides some rehearsal context and a great in-between medium between plastinates and cadavers.

“The very first day that we were going to be making cuts we opened up a body on the Anatomage Table and we were able to practice the envelope-shaped cuts we’d be making to open up the rib cage,” said sophomore Kacey Cavanagh, a nursing major. "We were all very nervous about cutting into an actual body, so that was very helpful to see."  

The table also helps those unable to do the dissections.

“Some students, because of religious or cultural reasons or past trauma, can’t work with cadavers," noted Bauer, "and so the table also accommodates their learning.

“Physical cadavers have their limits,” he continued. “You can only slice into a body once. Students can slice, if you will, into the digital cadavers a gazillion times. Cadavers can be very messy, and they deteriorate over time. Because of preservation and cleaning techniques it can actually be easier to see some anatomical features in 3-D in the digital environment.” 

Junior Kelly Schock has seen this phenomenon firsthand as an instructional assistant for the BIO 494 advanced practicum in human dissection.

Part of her role involves guiding dissection students “to make sure the prosections for BIO 201 and 202 students to observe are meticulously presented and labeled, so that beginning students have access to a near-perfect specimen when viewing a structure for the very first time,” she said.

“The way that fat forms over muscles and organs can hide some structures. Veins, arteries and the lymphatic system are empty and flatten out, and other superficial structures may not present well in a cadaver or may inadvertently ‘go missing’ during the removal of material,” Schock explained. “The cadavers are soaked in a solution to make sure they’re clean enough to handle. You know how your skin gets when you soak in the hot tub for a while? It’s not in its natural state.”

More than anything, though, Schock said she has seen how this technology has sparked student interest. 

“Linking science and technology this way makes the material exciting for students,” she said. “Now when I throw my lab students bone models to work with, they’ll ask if they can use the table instead. Any science nerd really appreciates it.”

An operating table-sized tablet

The Anatomage technology first came to the attention of Jennifer Legere, anatomy and physiology laboratory coordinator, a few years ago, when she was researching potential teaching tools that would give students more hands-on time.

“We’d been using some 3-D visualization products that were instructor-controlled. I’d be up at the front of the classroom doing the manipulation on two touchscreens with students observing the projection wearing 3-D glasses,” Legere said. “For students, there’s not so much ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ in that — it’s more like watching something on TV.

“The Anatomage table is very intuitive for our students, who are used to clicking and swiping their phones, tablets and iPads to resize images or go deeper into content. They have picked it up very quickly,” she said. “Manipulating the technology themselves, they’re immediately engrossed in learning and it’s impossible to be detached.

“There was really nothing else out there that compared to this technology,” Legere continued. “With the table we have perpetual access to digital anatomy of three full-size human cadavers, with a range of variation, anomalies and pathology. We also have radiology assets like CT scans and MRIs, and get regular software updates as new content becomes available.

“We can go in and color-code the anatomical components of the Anatomage virtual cadavers to match the color of structures on the magnetic models in our labs,” she added, “so information transfers across platforms seamlessly to our students.” 

Legere pitched the product to Bauer in 2014, and the college was able to make the purchase and take delivery in December 2017.

“New content and features were added in the intervening years that made the wait worthwhile,” she noted, “including the capability to switch the table from a horizontal to a vertical orientation, which is helpful when you want to get more students around the table at one time.”

A unique teaching tool

At ASU’s recent Open Door event at the Downtown Phoenix campus on Feb. 2, Lehman and fellow instructional assistant Genesis Rivera, also a senior nursing major, demonstrated the Anatomage technology to community visitors of all ages as Legere buzzed in and out between other demonstrations.

“Could I see the eyes?” asked one child, as Lehman and Rivera encouraged those gathered to pick a body system or organ they’d like to see up close.

“How about the heart?” “The lymphatic system?” “The appendix?” suggested guests. One family group wondered if they could see an image that would help them understand the physiology of a loved one’s recent stroke.

Though the two had only been using the table for a few weeks, their grasp of the material and confidence was unmistakable as visitors peppered them with questions.  

Working with the Anatomage technology and being impressed with the company, Schock went to their website two weeks ago and checked out their career postings.

“I emailed their general info address, explaining my background and asked if they ever hired interns,” she said. “They put me in touch with someone, I shared with them my experience and why I’d be interested in working with the company, and they offered me a paid internship. I’ll be working there all summer in Silicon Valley.

“It’s a good reminder that not every path has already been made.

“They want me to help develop curriculum and the questions that go along with the table’s supporting material. I’ll be creating content and preparing data for upcoming software releases, reviewing anatomy accuracy and assisting in corrections and, of course, helping anyone out as needed.    

“I came into college thinking I wanted to be a doctor, at one time considered switching to business, but then I took anatomy and said, ‘This is where it’s at!’ ” she said. “I love anatomy and I like people and social interaction, which is why I’m really excited about doing the internship. It’s a perfect combination of the three.”

Top photo: Trainer Samantha Chester walks instructional assistants through the different applications of the Anatomage Table during a training at the Downtown Phoenix campus on Dec. 8. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Maureen Roen

Editorial and communication coordinator , College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


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Changing the anatomy of a science education

February 26, 2018

ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts implementing creative strategies to provide students with multiple pathways to success

When Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus opened in 2006, almost all of the students taking general science courses in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts were nursing majors.

As the campus has grown to be home to more than 8,400 undergraduates pursuing a range of degree programs — from allied health fields and public service to journalism and communication — the learning needs of students have changed. 

“It’s a delicate balance to keep the BIO 201 and 202 curriculum in-depth enough for the majors that need that rigor, but approachable for allied health and other majors as well,” said lecturer Tonya Penkrot, who has been teaching anatomy and physiology in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts faculty since 2009.

Science faculty members have developed a new one-semester survey course, BIO 160: Anatomy and Physiology for Non-Science Majors, which will launch in fall 2018 and, she said, should appeal to a broad range of students. 

“I’m proud of our faculty’s ability to manage the huge growth and continue to provide the best experiences for students in lectures, recitations and labs,” said Richard Bauer, a principal lecturer and Science, Math and Social Science faculty head in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “They’re really creative and encourage interactive learning, so that even in a lecture hall, students are engaged.

“Decisions on instruction are grounded in what we know about how students learn,” he emphasized. “We’re always focused on finding ways to help students be more successful.”

RELATED: Digital cadavers bring students a deeper understanding of anatomy and physiology

Laying groundwork for future research and careers

Making every opportunity for applied learning has been a cornerstone of the faculty's curricular and pedagogical innovations.  

When the coursework calls for exploring tissue under the microscope, Associate Professor J.P. Hyatt, for example, involves students in slide prep.

“They use the Cryostat technology — think a small, very cold deli slicer — to prepare microscope slides for the full class to use,” Hyatt said. “It gives our undergraduate students a throughput to research. They’re doing real tissue work and connecting teaching to research in a very tangible way.”

Upper-division undergraduates who have excelled in the anatomy and physiology 200- and 400-level courses have the opportunity to progress into a teaching role and be hired as instructional assistants (IAs) to help lead these same lab sections as peer mentors.

“Involving undergraduates as instructional assistants has become a signature, and very positive, addition to our program,” Bauer said. “Our student workers are extremely talented and qualified and are partners in contributing to student success. Having recently taken the course, they’re on the front lines in seeing flaws and offering ideas about how we can make our teaching better and continually improve. Students also feel very comfortable going to IAs with questions.”

First-year students don’t usually walk into an anatomy and physiology course expecting it to be a solid rung on the career ladder. 

“But career progression is built into these courses,” said Jennifer Legere, anatomy and physiology laboratory coordinator. “For many IAs it’s their first professional job. They become confident public speakers and discover they have a passion for teaching. They learn what it means to be representing their university, and they develop a sense of pride in their work and the institution.”

Legere herself was a student of anatomy and physiology at this campus in 2009 and became an instructional assistant in 2010. Hired as the full-time lab coordinator in 2013, she now oversees the 40 anatomy and physiology labs for BIO 201 and 202 and runs the weekly IA lab meetings, where students learn and discuss pedagogy. 

“In a typical session with the IAs for 201, they’ll work through the lab manual for the following week on their own before coming to the meeting,” Legere said. “I’ll call on them at random and ask what the goal of the lab is and go over our objectives and activities with the models and the Anatomage Table. I’ll ask what they think students might struggle with.

“Experienced IAs will talk about what students had difficulty with in the past and offer tips that worked for them, like inventive ways to remember particular structures or concepts,” she continued. “As a group we’ll brainstorm ideas about presenting the material in a way that’s more relatable. The IAs bring a different perspective from what I and the faculty have.”

Helping students discover their passion

ASU sophomore Kacey Cavanagh wants to eventually be a pediatric nurse practitioner in a primary-care setting. She knew as a senior in high school that she wanted a career working with kids, but the science and health piece of the puzzle came later.

“I volunteered with a kids’ musical theater group,” Cavanagh said. “Helping kids realize their goals and having them put their trust in me felt really special. I wasn’t sure which direction to take that, but thought, 'Hey, I’m pretty smart; I could probably do nursing.'

“But until I came to ASU, science was never my go-to subject,” she admitted. “Taking anatomy and physiology freshman year I was like, 'Yes! Let’s talk about the body!' For me it was like an accidental blessing in a way."   

She completed the BIO 494 Advanced Study Practicum focused on laboratory assistance last semester. This semester she’s applying what she learned as an IA, leading two BIO 202 labs.

“I think your IA kind of makes the course. If they’re not knowledgeable and having fun, you’re not going to be excited about the material,” she said. “To see people’s faces when they see or understand something for the first time, that’s a shared passion and excitement I really like.” 

Kelly Schock, now an IA for BIO 201 as well as for the advanced dissection practicum 494, said her experience as a student and as an IA in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts science program at Downtown Phoenix campus has had a similarly strong influence on her professional goals.   

“I came to ASU as a student athlete to run track and cross-country,” said Schock, who is majoring in biological sciences at ASU Tempe campus. “The BIO 201 course that best fit my schedule happened to be on the downtown campus, and I had a great experience, including a fantastic IA who had a desire and passion for the subject. 

“The next semester, taking 201, I got to know Dr. Penkrot and Dr. (Jeff) Kingsbury, and by then I knew I wanted to be on the inside of the IA experience myself, making sure students had a smooth learning experience. It’s definitely gotten me interested in the education field; I don’t know what aspect yet, but maybe something in developing curriculum and learning tools, and teaching people indirectly.”  

Top photo: Lab coordinator Jennifer Legere tests her students on their knowledge of human skull bones on the Anatomage Table in their Human Anatomy/Physiology I Lab at the Downtown Phoenix campus on Feb. 7. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Maureen Roen

Editorial and communication coordinator , College of Integrative Sciences and Arts