Sarah Knight Marvar, PhD
My students, like me, enjoy a challenge. Occasionally this challenge comes in the form of staying on track, using our lab time efficiently to achieve the learning outcomes and staying engaged with the material. There are specific topics that we cover in our undergraduate human anatomy and physiology course, such as the skeletal system, that had become a little dry over time. Classes occasionally included students sitting at desks looking disinterestedly at disarticulated bones glancing at their lab manual and then checking their phones. I felt that the students were not getting enough out of our laboratory time and weren’t nearly as excited as I was to be there!
With other faculty members I recently devised some new laboratory activities that include a series of quests that closely resemble a mental obstacle course, to try to encourage engagement with the material and make our learning more playful and memorable. There may also be some healthy competition along the way.
I teach an undergraduate two semester combined anatomy and physiology course, in which I lead both the lecture and laboratory portions. Students who are enrolled in this course are majoring in Biology, Neuroscience, Public Health and Health Promotions. Many of the enrolled students are destined for graduate school programs such as Medicine, Nursing, Physical Therapy, Physicians Assistant and PhD Programs. An example of the quest format we used recently in a bone laboratory is described here.
The laboratory is set up with multiple quest stations that each represent a multi-step task on areas within the overarching laboratory topic. All of the tasks are designed to enable students to achieve the learning outcomes of the laboratory in an engaging way. The quest stations are designed to encourage the students to physically move around the laboratory in order to interact with other students, touch the exhibits, explore case studies, complete illustrations and build models. Each student begins with a quest guide which provides instructions and upon which they take notes, answer questions and complete drawings. Students move at their own pace and work in self-selected pairs or groups of three. They are able to ask for assistance at any stage of a quest from either of two faculty members present.
Clinical case studies
Because of the students’ interest in patient care, we use clinical case studies as a major component of the obstacle course. X-ray images of a variety of pathological conditions as well as healthy individuals challenged students’ ability to identify anomalies in bone structure and surgery outcomes. The images that we used included a skull of a newborn showing clearly the fontanelles, an example of osteoporosis and joint replacement surgery. Students are required to identify anatomical location of the image as well as any anomalies, pathology or points of interest. Because of the student demographic of this class, many of them are destined to enter healthcare professions, they are particularly interested in this quest and are invested in solving the mystery diagnoses.
The Creative Part
The coloring pencils and electric pencil sharpener have come into their own in the laboratory and like Grey’s Anatomy illustrator Henry Vandyke Carter created before them, amazing anatomically accurate drawings are appearing on the page. Histology has been a particularly challenging aspect of our course for students with little previous exposure to sectioned specimens. In an attempt to allow students to really process what they are looking at and reflect on the tissue function I have asked students to draw detailed images of the histological specimens, label cell types and reflect on specific cell functions. This exercise aims to elevate the student’s ability to look closely at histological specimens and gain a better understanding of what they are observing and contemplate specific cell function.
Another quest involves categorizing bones and making illustrations of them, making note of unique identifying features and their functions.
Reminiscent of scenes from my three year old’s birthday party, I brought out the modeling clay and tried to stifle the reflex instruction to “don’t mix the colors”! Students were tasked with creating a 3-dimensional model of structures such as synovial joints. This is a particularly successful exercise in which students work with colored modeling clay to construct models of joints and label parts of the joint and describe the function of each part. This allows students to consider the relationship between the structure and function and move beyond looking at two-dimensional images from their textbooks and lecture slides. Students submit images of their completed models to the faculty for successful completion of the quest.
Other quest stations that were part of this particular laboratory session included Vertebrae Organizing, Mystery Bone Identification and Bone Growth Mechanisms.
One of the primary things that I learned from this exercise was that designing game-like scenarios in the classroom is far more enjoyable and entertaining for me as well as for the students, a win-win scenario. Overall from the perspective of the teaching faculty, the level of engagement was significantly increased compared with previous iterations of the class. The quality of the work submitted was high and in addition, this quest-based laboratory design is suitable for a wide range of topics and activities. I am currently designing a muscle physiology laboratory in a similar format that will include an electromyogram strength and cheering station as well as a sliding filament muscle contraction student demonstration station. In reflection I feel that my personal quest to find a novel and interesting way for the students to learn about bones was successful. Now onto the next quest……
Sarah Knight Marvar received her BSc in Medical Science and PhD in Renal Physiology from the University of Birmingham, UK. Sarah is currently a Senior Professorial Lecturer and Assistant Laboratory Director in the Biology Department at American University in Washington DC. Sarah teaches undergraduate Anatomy and Physiology, general biology classes as well as a Complex Problems class on genetic modification to non-majors as part of the AU Core program. Sarah’s research interests include using primary research literature as a teaching tool in the classroom, open educational resources and outreach activities.