How an interdisciplinary collaboration enhanced my teaching of Human Anatomy

abstractI had done a number of projects with an art professor at my institution and had found her approach to the science content engaging and invigorating. When I proposed that we have a couple of our classes collaborate on a project she was enthusiastic. Students in my Human Anatomy class collaborated with students in her Color Theory class to develop a visual representation of anatomy content, not just illustrations though, much more than illustrations that you would find in a textbook.

My students wrote brief text teaching about some anatomy content they found interesting. They were required to choose their own topic and investigate it in more depth than we did during class. They were required to use language that anyone could understand to transmit their knowledge. Then they met with the Color Theory students giving them their text, talking with them about the content.

The Color Theory students took the text and composed artistic representations of the anatomy content. The pieces they developed were far removed from what you would typically expect to see in an anatomy classroom. Some of them were interpretations of the text, some of them focused on the emotions that were implied by the text, some of them focused more on the social aspects embodied by the anatomy content (for instance skin color, racial identity, white privilege). Very few were literal representations of the anatomy content.

At the end of the project the students came together again. The Color Theory students did a short presentation on their pieces and how they related to the anatomy content they had been presented with. I was amazed by the diversity of visual work that resulted and the creative ways that the work related to the anatomy content. My students felt the same. It made the anatomy content relevant in a way that was distinctly more personal and emotionally poignant.

It was invigorating as the instructor to see both the Anatomy and Color Theory students relating to the anatomy content in such a unique way. I saw them personally connecting with the material and becoming excited about it. The anatomy students later told me that they felt like they had helped other people really understand content in anatomy. It got my students talking with art students and having really interesting conversations. I would recommend that everyone enhance their teaching with interdisciplinary collaborations!

If you would like to get your toes wet there are a number of resources available on the LifeSciTRC to help you get your anatomy students doing some relevant art work in your class.  The following resource describes a method for using clay modeling to help students learn anatomical structures: A second resource: describes using body painting to teach anatomy. Either could be used to get students doing more artistic activities in class. I recommend seeing if an art instructor at your institution would be interested in collaborating as well.

What have you done in your classroom that is interdisciplinary? Have you done anything specifically combining art into your classes? Do you have any ideas you might like to implement in the future?




Lynn Diener, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Sciences Department Chair and Biology Program Director at Mount Mary College. Lynn regularly teaches Human Physiology, Human Anatomy, and Ecology. She is also a LifeSciTRC Scholar, Fellow, and Advisory Board Member.


5 thoughts on “How an interdisciplinary collaboration enhanced my teaching of Human Anatomy”

What an awesome idea, Lynn! I find that a lot of my HS A&P students are very creative thinkers and really enjoy bringing art into anatomy.
What was the final part of the project for your anatomy students (or were they part of the art presentation)? Did the art students present to other art students or your anatomy students?

    My anatomy students attended the art students final presentations. The art students described which anatomy student they were working with and what their content to interpret was. They explained what they were trying to embody with their work. My students then got the chance to ask questions and make comments. It was a lovely exchange. What I also appreciated about it was that the color theory students came to our anatomy classroom for the first meeting. For the final presentations we went to the art wing and listened to their presentations there. It gave everyone a special sort of ownership over the resulting collaborative works and a unique sense of place in classrooms where they didn’t always necessarily feel they belonged.
    In the end I had my students fill our surveys about the experience which is how I know their final impressions.

This is a great collaboration idea, and it really gets around my discomfort with assigning things that require artistic skill (as I have none). What a cool way to combine learning modalities and give students a taste of cool stuff other fields are doing.

Lynn, this is a fabulous idea! It lends itself so well to a liberal arts environment. Do you have any advice for educators who might be at a larger research institution or community college who may want to adapt this idea?

I love this idea of collaboration. I do a similar thing with a colleague who teaches Medical illustration. Whenever I teach a body system in my Anatomy and Physiology class, he would ask me what organs we dissected and studied and then he would introduce a modelling activity with the students wherein the students make their own organ model complete with labels. He checks the execution and accuracy of the model and I check accuracy of the parts and location. Our students are always so proud of their work.

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