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Gross anatomy classes provide rare experience for undergrads

April 1, 2010

When Mark Frasier came back to Colorado State University to get his M.S. in 1970, he had every intention of continuing on to get his doctoral degree. But then, one semester, he taught anatomy and fell in love with teaching, with the students, and with the course material. He wanted to teach anatomy every semester. And, for the last 30 years, he has been doing just that.

How our bodies work

Anatomy students use biological specimens as well as advanced software.

“I can’t think of anything more fascinating than our own bodies,” said Frasier, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences who teaches both Gross Human Anatomy and Gross Animal Anatomy.

“If we can teach students to understand how their own bodies work – and make anatomy fun and exciting in a safe environment – then I think that is success.”

Class required for many majors

Gross Human Anatomy is required for a number of majors at Colorado State University, including health and exercise science, biology, and human development, is one of three options for Biomedical Sciences majors, and is a highly recommended elective for other life science majors.

With 300 students each fall, and 100 students each summer, the course presents unique challenges including how the laboratory is set up and efficiencies in organizational structure. In addition, approximately 50 students take the graduate 500-level anatomy class each semester.

One of few undergrad programs to use cadavers

What sets CSU’s undergraduate anatomy class apart from most others nationwide, is the use of a small number of cadavers. “We are one of the few undergraduate programs in the country that use cadavers in our undergraduate laboratories, so we provide a very rich learning environment for our students,” said Frasier.

“I’ve been teaching gross anatomy for more than 30 years and firmly believe that cadavers are essential to truly understand anatomic structure and relationships, how living systems are integrated, and the incredible workings of biological organisms.”

Each fall, the Anatomical Board of the State of Colorado, operated out of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, oversees the distribution of cadavers to public and private educational institutions in Colorado. The limited numbers of cadavers received at Colorado State are used in both the 300- and 500-level anatomy courses.

Grad students help teach undergrads

In the last six years, software programs have revolutionized teaching and learning in gross anatomy.

The 500-level students dissect one portion of the cadavers, and then students in the 300-level class work with the same portion of the cadavers with the 500-level students as their teaching assistants. Cadavers used in coursework are frequently preserved and used the next year to ensure that each lab group has a specimen with which to work.

“In our 500-level class, we usually have students work in groups of four, each getting 150 hours of dissection time, just like in a medical school,” said Frasier. “Once these students do their dissections, they come into the larger undergraduate class and work with students in our 300-level class in small groups of four to five.

Our students benefit greatly by the incredible people who have donated their bodies to medical education. These are generous people who give to the world twice – during their lives and in death. Once our work is completed, the cadavers are returned to the Anatomical Board for cremation and return of the cremains to the donor’s family.”

Visible Human Dissector software program

In addition to a small number of cadavers, students in the anatomy classes at Colorado State University use the Visible Human Dissector. The Visible Human Project, established in 1989 by the National Library of Medicine, uses a digital image library of volumetric data representing complete, normal adult male and female anatomy. Frasier and colleagues at CSU and the University of Colorado have worked in collaboration through the Center for Human Simulation at UCHSC to develop software programs to enhance the virtual human for educational purposes.

“In the last six years, this program has revolutionized teaching and learning in gross anatomy,” said Frasier. “Students can have a virtual cadaver in their home that allows them to look at individual organs or structures, visualize entire systems such as the nervous system or cardiovascular system, and layer different aspects of the body to see relationships. The program helps students understand the cadaver, and the cadaver helps students understand and relate to the program. Ray Whalen at CSU has been an innovator in this field of digital anatomy, as has Vick Spitzer at the Center for Human Simulation. Many of our graduate students also have contributed as authors.”

Frasier, who has a joint appointment with the School of New England as an adjunct professor, also offers an online course in digital anatomy using the Visible Human Dissector.

Death and mortality lessons

“Human anatomy can be a challenging course to teach, particularly given our class sizes and the fact that we have cadavers in our laboratories, which for many of our students is the first time they have had to come to terms with death and mortality,” said Frasier.

“We do everything we can to create a positive and supportive environment from working hard to ameliorate fumes so that we meet or exceed government standards, to providing support to students who are dealing with intense emotions as they work with the cadavers. It’s an incredible learning experience at all levels, and a class with which I’m very proud to be associated.”

Originally published in Biomedical Sciences Update, Spring 2010.