Anatomy students receive a helping hand from innovative pedagogical approach

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There are no knives or probes involved when the students in Nicolette Richardson’s upper-year Regional Anatomy II class dissect a human cadaver, because it is all done virtually: no mess, no smell, but plenty of opportunity to learn, nonetheless.

Nicolette Richardson
Nicolette Richardson

“There was no lab component to the course when I first came to York,” said Richardson, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science in the Faculty of Health, “so with the help of a Faculty of Health grant, I was able to develop a virtual dissection lab.”

A site license provides York students with free access to a suite of Primal Pictures dissection software through the University libraries, so the students can use a computer touchpad or mouse to locate and dissect structures such as brains or kidneys, rather than just looking at textbook drawings and photos.

“I give them a list of structures and it’s very similar to a physical lab,” Richardson said. “Everyone also greatly appreciates the ability to do it on their own time; it translates to excellent accessibility. I record all of my lectures, too. Many of our students commute or have jobs, so I want to do what I can to make learning as easy as possible.”

Richardson’s second-year introductory anatomy students have also benefited from the software. Renovations to the Farquharson Life Sciences Building on the Keele Campus provided the opportunity to redesign the human anatomy laboratories with federal funds; the labs now include hook-ups for e-learning. Each lab has three large video screens connected to two cameras and a computer, allowing lab demonstrators to ensure that all students in the lab can see demonstrations of dissections clearly.

Professor Richardson demonstrates how anatomy is taught virtually
Professor Richardson demonstrates how anatomy is taught virtually

“The teaching assistants can project dissections or structures onto the screens, and they can also pull up virtual dissections or diagrams,” Richardson said. “It makes demonstrations better and more efficient. Instead of showing the dissection to each group of three to four students, the Teaching Assistant (TA) can walk through a virtual human or animal dissection of a particular structure and let the students work on animal specimens afterward.

“In the past, the TA would have to demonstrate to each group individually on the lab table, and it wasn’t always easy to see if 20 students were crowded around. It has made a huge difference; it makes everything we do in the lab more effective.”

Richardson says it also helps build a sense of community among the students in the lab section, which “is nice in a course with 900 people.”

The students can also use the software to review and practise what they have learned in the lab, which is helpful in preparing for exams.

Richardson says the software has other components, so it is also applicable to students in physiology courses who use it to see how various muscles work during specific movements or activities.

She is delighted to be able to add this hands-on, e-learning component to her courses.

“I’ve always learned anatomy with my hands,” she said. “I wanted students to have an experiential component to their studies so they could apply the theories they learn in class.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus