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In most cases, today’s technology—high-quality computer graphics, extreme data calculations and 3-D imaging and printing—has improved the way society trains and educates professionals. But in the field of biology and medicine, the computer-generated images and models can’t compare with tradition—dissection on a human cadaver.
“Many studies have shown that comprehension and retention plummet when students don’t have the hands-on learning experience on a human cadaver,” said Karen Samonds, assistant professor of anatomical sciences.
A recent study by Michigan State University, which compared how well students identified parts of the body and explained how they worked using computer images and models and human cadavers, solidified what educators such as Samonds have known all along.
On identification, students who learned on a cadaver scored, on average, about 16 percent higher than those who learned on the computer simulation.
On explanation, students who learned on a cadaver scored about 11 percent higher. According to researchers, this finding was particularly surprising since one of the benefits of a multimedia program is that it can show how parts of the body work – such as blood flow – while a cadaver cannot.
According to the study, the difference of the scores is the equivalent of a letter grade. For students, that can make a difference when applying to graduate schools.
NIU’s anatomy laboratory, located in Anderson Hall, is the setting for three anatomy courses offered by the university. All are taught utilizing donated cadavers.
“This makes NIU unique,” Samonds said. “Most cadaver labs are reserved for nursing, dental or medical schools. To have a lab where we have opportunities for undergraduates to be taught utilizing cadavers gives them a huge advantage when they apply to master’s programs or medical schools.”
Phillip Persino, a first-year student at Chicago’s Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master’s degree in Human Anatomical Sciences from NIU. He said having a master degree in human anatomy, coupled with his extensive lab experience, made the transition to medical school easier and has helped him in the classroom.
“Professors put a great deal of trust in me to find delicate structures and to teach others around me,” he said.
The experience fills students with anxiety, only to dissipate when they become immersed in learning about the idiosyncrasies of the human body and its myriad of systems.
“Most students say learning on a cadaver was a transformative experience,” Samonds said.
Students enrolled in the advanced human anatomy and gross human anatomy courses are expected to work their way through the human body, examining organs as well as systems.
“It’s a comprehensive experience,” Samonds said, adding students gain precision, patience, leadership and confidence.
The experience builds more than just knowledge and skill. Team dissection of a cadaver provides students with a glimpse of the personal relationships involved in caring for patients.
“Students develop compassion and empathy through dissection,” Samonds said. “It forces the student to think about people as human lives, not just as patients or objects.”
Mary McGinn, a first-year student in the human anatomical sciences program, said the experience of dissecting a cadaver was a solemn occasion.
“Before I started my first cut on the cadaver in gross anatomy, I said a brief prayer, thanking the donor for the use of her body and promising her that I would honor her gift by learning as much as I possibly could from it,” she recalled.
In addition to learning anatomy, students get a glimpse into a person’s life.
“We know our cadaver’s sex, age and cause of death, but we learn about them in intimate detail: bypass surgery, dentures, disease, scars, tattoos and implants,” McGinn said. “Each body tells a story, and people are as varied and fascinating in death as they are in life.”
Thomas Gorney, a first-year doctoral student in physical therapy, said students form a bond with members of their dissecting team, but also with the cadaver.
“We ended up naming ours and developed their whole life story,” he added.
One advantage to learning on a cadaver is the ability to learn in three dimensions, said Daniel Olson, assistant professor of anatomical sciences and director of the anatomy laboratory.
“Students need to think in three dimensions when treating. It’s important for students to see variations in human systems.”
“Cadaver dissection is the only way to learn anatomy,” Persino added. “Many people don’t realize how similar everything looks in a cadaver, and how difficult it is to find.”
Gorney said a cadaver gives students a complete, detailed picture of the human body and how systems work together.
“You get to see how every muscle, nerve and artery connect with one another and run throughout the body,” he said. “There is no model that can show any amount of detail that is remotely close to the real thing.”
The experience of learning about the human body using cadavers isn’t limited to just NIU’s undergraduate and graduate students. Every spring, the lab offers an opportunity for area high school students to learn about human anatomy utilizing NIU’s cadavers.
More than 350 high school juniors and seniors enrolled in anatomy and physiology classes will come to NIU this spring for a one-day course in human gross anatomy. Under the guidance of anatomy faculty and NIU students, visiting students rotate through four stations – prosected cadaver study, organs, bones and models – before taking a 50-question exam.
“Not only is this valuable outreach, but it helps us recruit students,” Olson said.
The lab and the numerous learning opportunities it provides relies heavily on human generosity, according to Olson and Samonds.
“We’re unique among Midwest universities that we have a cadaver lab and a donor program,” Olson said.
NIU receives an average of 10 donations a year through the donor program, which began in 1989. The estate of the deceased person is responsible for transferring the body to a specific funeral home. The university will cover body preparation, embalming and cremation costs. Bodies are individually cremated and returned to the families after being utilized in the classroom.
The magnitude of the gift isn’t lost on students.
“They realize early on that these people represent someone’s family, and this is a unique opportunity,” Samonds said.
“We’re very lucky to have a lab where undergraduate and graduate students can experience quality, hands-on learning,” Samonds said. “If you want students to be successful, provide them the tools to learn.”
Paula Meyer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences