Tag Archives: interactive learning

In Defense of the “Real” Thing

Society has moved into the age of virtual reality.  This computer-generated trend has wide-sweeping implications in the classroom.  Specific to anatomy, impressive 3D modeling programs permit students to dissect simulated bodies pixel by pixel.  It is exciting and often more cost-effective.  Virtual dissection, without doubt, can play a significant role in the current learning environment. However, as stated by Rene Descartes, “And so that they might have less difficulty understanding what I shall say about it, I should like those who are unversed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading this, of having the heart of a large animal with lungs dissected before their eyes (for it is in all respects sufficiently like that of a man)”. This idea leads me to my argument; there is no replacement for the real thing.

 

We as teachers must incorporate a variety of learning tools for a student to truly understand and appreciate anatomical structure. Anatomical structure also needs to be related to physiological function. Is there anyone reading this that has not repeated the mantra “form determines function” hundreds or thousands of times during their teaching?  The logistical and financial restrictions to human cadavers, necessitates the frequent incorporation of chemically preserved specimens into our laboratory curriculum. Course facilitators often employ a cat or a pig as a substitute for the human body. I am not advocating against the use of preserved specimens or virtual programs for that matter (and kudos to my fellow facilitators who have learned the arduous techniques required to dissect a preserved specimen). However, it is my opinion that it is a time consuming assignment with limited educational end points. Not to mention the rising specimen costs and limited vendor options. The cost of a preserved cat is now ~$40, while the average cost of a live mouse is only ~$5. Two very important components necessary to understand the concept that form determines function are missing from preserved specimens (even cadavers). These two components are: texture and color. With respect to color, the tissues of preserved specimens are subtle variations of gray, completely void of the Technicolor show of the living organism. Further, texture differences are extremely difficult to differentiate in a preserved specimen. Compare this to a fresh or live specimen and the learning tools are innumerable. You might argue that mice are much smaller, but dissecting microscopes can easily enhance the dissection and in my experience far outweigh the noxious experience of dissecting a chemically preserved organism.

 

To further convince you of the value of dissecting fresh tissue I would like to present a couple of examples. First, why is the color of tissue important? One of the most important bodily pigments is hemoglobin. Hemoglobin, as we all know, is the pigment that gives blood its red color. Therefore the color of a tissue often reflects the level of the tissue vascularity and often (but of course not always) in turn the ability of that tissue to repair or regenerate. Simply compare the color of the patellar tendon (white) to the red color of the quadriceps. Muscles being highly vascularized have a much greater ability to regenerate than non-vascular connective tissue such as the patellar tendon. In addition, muscles contain myoglobin, a red protein very similar to hemoglobin. Two clear examples of teaching opportunities that would be missed with the traditional use of preserved specimens.

 

Texture is completely lost with chemical preservation as tissues become hardened and rubbery. My students are always blown away by the fact you can completely eliminate the overall structure of the brain by pressing it between their two fingers. The tactile experience of holding the delicate brain allows students to explore how form begets function begets pathology. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a hot topic in our culture. We no longer see children riding bicycles without helmets, the National Football League has new rules regarding tackle technique and my 8-year-old soccer player is penalized for headers during game play. What better way to educate a new generation of students just how delicate nervous tissue is than by having them “squash” a mouse brain? Regardless, of the amazing skull that surrounds the brain and the important fluid in which it floats, a hit to the head can still result in localized damage and this tactile experience emphasizes this in a way no virtual dissection could ever accomplish.

 

Finally, I would like to discuss a topic close to my heart that does require a non-preserved large animal specimen. The function of arteries and veins is vastly different based on the structure of elastic or capacitance vessels, respectively. For example, the deer heart allows easy access to the superior or inferior vena cava (veins that are thin and easily collapsed) and the aorta (thick and elastic artery) permitting valuable teaching moments on vessel structural variability for divergent physiological function. These structures on a preserved specimen are usually removed just as they enter the heart making them very difficult to evaluate.

 

These are just some elementary examples. Numerous concepts can be enhanced with the added illustrations of texture and color. When presented with both options, my students always choose the fresh tissue!  The wonder and excitement of handling fresh tissue has become a hallmark of our Anatomy and Physiology course and is regularly mentioned as student’s favorite example of hands-on learning in the classroom.

 

I have to end this with a special shout-out to my dear lab adjunct Professor Elizabeth Bain MSN, RN. Liz has made access to deer heart and lungs an easy task for me.

April Carpenter, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Health and Exercise Physiology Department at Ursinus College. She received her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and completed two postdoctoral fellowships at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Her research interests include the molecular regulation of endothelial function and its impact on all phases of skeletal muscle injury.  Dr. Carpenter currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology, Research Methods and a new Pathophysiology course.
Writing—Work in Progress

As a scientist and educator over the years, I have had the good fortune and pleasure to write and edit many manuscripts and documents, especially in collaborations with mentors, colleagues, and students. As most of us in the business know, writing doesn’t always come easy. It is often very challenging to convey information, thoughts, and ideas in a coherent and straightforward manner, and leave little room for misinterpretation, confusion, and ambiguity. In addition, it can be hard to convey excitement in writing. Writing is an art and deserves time and effort to create a masterpiece. Realistically though, time is rarely on our side for routinely creating works of art. However, we should still try!

 

Writing for me is work in progress, but very enjoyable. I know that I can always improve. Consequently, I seek better and more creative ways to express myself. I certainly wasn’t always enthusiastic about writing. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows please take note! As a graduate student writing my early manuscripts, I would often string a few sentences together that seemed reasonable and whisper to myself, “This is close and good enough.” It rarely was. My doctoral mentor, Dr. Walter F. Boron (presently at Case Western Reserve University) almost always caught those good enough sentences when we sat together meticulously reviewing every sentence when editing a manuscript. This experience was humbling, yet highly educational, and certainly one of the high points of my graduate school years. I have continued this tradition in my own lab— enduring the occasional sighs of annoyance from my students.

 

The extra effort in writing can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. Many helpful resources are available. Don’t be afraid to pull out that composition/grammar book when needed. I am particularly fond of The Random House Handbook (1), which remains dust-free on my office bookshelf. Also, make use of that Thesaurus tab in Microsoft® Word! Finally, learn from the creativity of others in their writing prose, sentence structure, and expression usage.

I leave you with a list of some of my favorite writing points and guides from over the years.

I acquired most of these from my former advisor, Dr. Boron; I owe him a great deal of gratitude. I also used Ref. 1 to supplement my understanding. Write on and become my fellow artists!

1. Tell a story with the goal of exciting your readers (yes, even with a scientific manuscript).

2. Assemble outlines.

3. Write rather than stare at a blank screen/page for too long. You can always edit a mess later.

4. Edit exhaustively, but spaced out over time.

5. Get input from others.

6. Scrutinize every sentence.

7. Ask the following for every sentence:

“Does it say what I want it to say?”

“How can I make it clearer and/or shorter?”

8. Write active sentences. For example, “Compound X caused effect Y” is better than, “The effect Y was caused by compound X.”

Writing active sentences also holds when citing the work of others. For example, “Smith et al. showed that…” is stronger than, “It has been shown that… (Smith et al.).”

9. Use parallel construction in multi-part sentences. For example, “Compound X caused an increase in Y, and Compound A caused a decrease in B.”

Use parallel construction for multiple sentences that are clearly linked. For example, if you are making three points and you start the first sentence with, “First,…,” then you should have a “Second,…” and a “Third,…”

10. Give the direction of an effect whenever possible. Using the example above, “Compound X caused an increase in Y” is better than, “Compound X had an effect on Y.” Sentences should be as informative as possible.

11. Use present tense when discussing a universal truth.

12. Be consistent in using declarative or non-declarative statements in main headings, in-line headings, figure legends, etc. throughout a body of work.

13. Be careful assigning an action to an inanimate object such as an experimental result. For example, “Experiment X showed Y.” Did the experiment really perform an action?

14. Use caution when starting a sentence with This or These. The reference needs to be clear.

15. Use then in if/then statements. Many writers leave out the then. For example, “If you add media A, then the cells will die” flows better than, “If you add media A the cells will die.” If you use if in an if/then sentence, then hunt for the expected then.

16. Use more gerunds, which are refreshingly active. For example, “Applying X increased Y” is more appealing than, “Application of X increased Y.”

17. Experiment with less frequently used forms of punctuation, e.g., the semicolon and em dash. It’s fun!

18. Don’t confuse that and which clauses. That is used in a restrictive clause to understand sentence meaning. Which is used in a nonrestrictive clause to present additional information; which follows a comma.

19. Use because instead of since in many cases. Since refers to time.

20. Minimize split infinitives. Some will argue with me on this one. For example, “to argue incessantly” is better than, “to incessantly argue.” It is sometimes difficult to avoid splitting up to-base verb pairs because they then sound clumsy. Some will reason that a split is acceptable in those cases. My Father’s response: “No. Rewrite the sentence.”

21. Be careful with generic terms such as numerous, many, variety of, etc. Ask yourself, “Is the term accurate? How many exactly?” Consider giving an appropriate example to the reader.

22. Use respectively sparingly. For example, “The results from experiments A, B, and C were 5.6, 8.9, and 4.3, respectively” is hard to follow and tedious. A good general rule: Avoid sentences that require the reader to match up terms in different parts of the sentence.

23. Remember the neither…nor combination.

24. Know the difference between i.e. and e.g.

25. Consider abandoning the old-fashioned, two-space rule between sentences that was popular with typewriter use. We’re in the age of computers with line justification.

Mark O. Bevensee, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cell, Developmental & Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His laboratory focuses on studying the cellular and molecular physiology of acid-base transporters involved in regulating intracellular pH in health and disease. Dr. Bevensee also teaches— primarily cell and renal physiology to graduate and professional students. He has served as the Director of the Renal Module for medical students since 2006, and currently serves as the Co-Director & Interim Director of the Master of Science in Biomedical and Health Sciences post-baccalaureate program. He is a member of many education committees, including the Medical Education Committee of the University of Alabama School of Medicine. He serves on the editorial board of Advances in Physiology Education (American Physiological Society, APS) and Medical Science Educator (International Association of Medical Science Educators, IAMSE), as well as the Membership committee of IAMSE. He has been a member of the APS for over 20 years, and is the newly elected Awards Councilor of the Cell and Molecular Physiology Section (CaMPS) Steering Committee of the APS.

Reference:

1. Crews, F. C. (1992). The Random House Handbook, 6th Ed. McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York.

Diary of an Adventure Junkie: Be Daring…Step Outside Your Comfort Zone!

19257649I love adventures, don’t you?  In fact, I love them so much that I am convinced that an adventure can happen anywhere and anytime.  I am a world traveler, the silly shopper who throws items into the grocery cart the length of the aisle just to make my daughter laugh, I geocache and I jump in rain puddles…but sometimes the excitement of an unknown adventure turns into anxiety and fear.  Like most people, I have had my fair share of anxiety about the unknown…starting graduate school, moving, becoming a parent, my first faculty position.  However, stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying something new can often have fantastic results.  In fact, physiology, the foundation of my professional adventures, is actually perfectly designed to help us achieve, when we place ourselves just outside of our comfort zone.

Upon completion of my postdoctoral fellowship, I found myself embarking on a series of new adventures…motherhood, moving and monetary-insufficiency.  At this juncture, monetary-insufficiency demanded that I find a fount of funds and quickly, so I applied for a physiology teaching position at a brand-new, doors-opening-soon medical school.  With so many non-professional challenges already on my plate, many asked why I would choose to start my career at a start-up institution.  The answers are simple…the job was in my hometown, it moved me from unemployed to employed and I had the chance to build a program and my career simultaneously from the ground up.  Building two sand castles at the same time was certainly pushing me over the edge of my comfort zone.

I decided immediately that I needed to make physiology interactive.  I did not want to reinvent the wheel and instead felt I could tap into a fellow physiologist’s methods and have students answer real-time questions in class with colored-construction paper.  My hope was that this interactive way of lecturing would benefit me as a new teacher and allow me to know when my students understood the lecture material and when they didn’t.  I proposed my idea to a few of the basic scientists on faculty with me and was met with a lot of, “well, you can try that it you want to,” coupled with doubtful looks.  Maybe I shouldn’t pursue this after all…I need everyone’s approval, right?

Without full support from senior faculty, I watched my comfort zone slipping away like the receding tide.  But I am an adventure junkie, so steeled with my ever present resolve, I marched down the hall to my first lecture.  I handed out four sheets of paper, red, blue, green and purple, to each entering student, admonished them not to lose the papers and dimmed the lights.  The lecture started and up popped the first question.  “Vote with confidence!” I cried after I had read the question stem.  Hesitantly, hands were raised and an answer was given in the form of colored-construction paper.  I explained why the answer the majority had given was correct and my comfort zone came slinking back towards me.  After a few more questions, the comfort zone of the class slowly reentered the auditorium and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Our newest adventure no longer evoked feelings of anxiety and physiology became interactive in our school.  Soon, thereafter other faculty wanted to poll students during lecture, I was commended for starting the movement and the school adopted an electronic audience response system.  But now what?

Shortly after beginning my faculty position, I knew I wanted to engage K12 children in science and began participating in PhUn week.  I started small, 25 students in one classroom.  I felt comfortable with these students, managed by their teacher, while l was partially shielded by my fellow physiologists; but I knew that many more would push me to the edge of my comfort circle, where the waves of anxiety waited to lap over me.  With each year of involvement, the number of participants and my comfort with them grew, expanding my comfort zone and forcing the waves out with the tide.  I connected with a local first-grade teacher who invited me to work with her class and facilitate their discovery of the special senses and germ transmission.  Then it happened…the wave crashed over me and I was rolling, tossing and being pulled down by the riptide. The upcoming project with one first-grade class had been expanded, “Please include all of the first-grade and the kindergarten classes too,” she said, “800 students in all.”  800! I can’t manage 800 students.  Fearing I would disappoint the young scientists-in-the-making, I agreed.  My comfort zone however, was on hiatus, minus an internet, telephone or even smoke signal connection.  I started the plotting and planning, recruiting volunteers, creating a schedule for each of the classes, buying supplies and encountering sleepless nights of worry.  The day of the Human Body Fair arrived, as did I, full of inward worry and outward energy.  After two days, 800 students, 40 volunteers, 6 physiology stations and innumerable cups of coffee, my comfort zone telephoned and said, “See, I knew you could do this with just a little push.”

All of these adventures have created anxiety and fear and ultimately feelings of satisfaction.  Sometimes I feel like my comfort zone took a trip to the beach without me, but it always comes back and I am always a better person for having let it take a vacation.  Now, as I swim towards my next adventure, a life outside of traditional academia, I know that while I may submerge at times, my head will always bob back up above the water and ride the waves.

Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica C Taylor is a physiologist, medical educator and adventure seeker. For the past six years she has served as a member of the physiology faculty at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Outside of the classroom she focuses on K12 outreach, presenting science to the general public and encouraging young women to pursue careers in science and healthcare. Her comfort zone is currently being washed out to sea as she leaves her current university in pursuit of other scientific arenas. Hopefully, she will be safely back in the zone soon.