Subscribe to BCAtalk   Follow BCA on Twitter   Connect with BCA on Facebook   BCA YouTube Channel   Contact   Member Login

BCA News: Fall 2020

Old School Meets Cyber School
My attempt to maintain traditional standards of student learning amidst the confines of Covid-19 distancing.
Jim Wetzel, PhD, FBCA

In my 30 years teaching anatomy to undergraduates, now continuing within graduate studies in Allied Health Sciences, I have worked through generations of different teaching strategies, redesigned classrooms, testing instruments, and of course educational pedagogies. They come, they go, they recycle, but all are centered on developing the best methods we can to facilitate student learning; long term retention in particular. Eventually individual instructors settle into some hybrid system that works best for them and their students – a blending of tried and true techniques, while embracing the myriad of technologies available. That 'teaching philosophy' has always worked well for me, until recently, wherein the mandate of social distancing has replaced the physical classroom with online classes and Zoom meetings. There is a piece missing in the mentoring when we lose the physical engagement within the lecture hall, and even more so when we no longer have the ability to meet in a physical lab setting. Lectures become empty rhetoric rather than engaging dialogue, and laboratories become times for recitations rather than hands-on exercises. Is essence, presentations replace performances, and worksheets replace experimentation. There is no 'spark' on either side of the podium.

As regards lectures, good and dedicated teachers have gotten quite creative and Zoom meetings can still be used to engage students. Simply calling on some to get their explanation or opinions, and of course, fielding questions in live-time so that everyone hears the same response and is free to generate a discussion link.

Laboratories however are more problematic. It is, I am quite convinced, human nature to do less whenever more is done for you. It is also true that hands-on learning affords a deeper understanding and results in greater retention that mere observation. That is the value of a teaching laboratory. When students run an experiment or engage in some hands-on exercise such as a dissection or use of the microscope, clarity is the end result. So, the question to me was how can I maintain that spirit of a laboratory setting when students are separated by miles and cannot do any hands-on activities?

I could address this in other aspects of my teaching, such as cyber dissections where I have mailed specimens to students and guided them over a video link, or joint modeling projects, where students are working solo and I can critique their work via Zoom. But histology (in my opinion, the essential core of knowledge in anatomy) requires the obvious use of the microscope and observations of a prescribed sets of slides based on organ systems. In my physical lab, I have them work from a rather large selections of slides I've prepared over the years of various tissue types biopsied from different organs -healthy and pathology based.

Given a description of the slide and armed with a list of structures they are to identity and relate to function, they work though the slides, and using a digital attachment, photograph and label their own representative image bank/histology atlas. When they turn this in for grading, each must be properly labeled and set with an appropriate scale bar and descriptive legend. It does take time, but they do learn the material and as far as I know, come to treasure that hard-earned personal atlas.

Many I know have used it in some graduate or profession programs post-graduation. Now, as labs are limited to essentially half the numbers of students to maintain the required 6-foot distance, and with many campuses closing and defaulting to full-time online classes, what can be done as a reasonable laboratory substitution? The typical default strategy here is the use of an image bank, usually provided by the publisher of the textbook. These images are typically very 'clean' and are usually pre-labeled with the identification of pertinent structure. While these are excellent as a student resource, merely pulling up an image on the screen, this approach requires no more student involvement than looking at printed pages within the lab manual. It is not exciting for students, and in turn, they do not get much from the histology section. They do not develop the needed focus and attention to fine-structure, and accordingly, too often do not do well on histology practicums.

How to maintain that 'laboratory spirit' was my self-imposed task. How to minimize what is lost through cyber-learning and get back as close as I could to the histology portion of the anatomy lab. My solution was to take home a microscope, digital photomicrography attachment, and hundreds of histology slides (some 'clean', some reflecting the typical poor quality they may someday see in biopsy specimens), and post that image bank with no more information than tissue type and the magnification. Students then have to select images from that bank and construct their own histology atlases. They cannot use prelabeled images from any online image or histology guide, and they are following instructions much as they would receive in the laboratory introductions. As one example I offer this text that I wrote on a student handout for a lab on reproductive endocrinology.

Tuesday in lecture we described the progressive stages of oogenesis after colonization of the embryonic gonad by primordial germ cells, the subsequent maturation on a secondary oocyte during adolescences, and the degeneration of the follicle cells post-menses. Go to the image bank and select the folder entitled Oogenesis. Prepare this as figure 1. Include an appropriate legend with each, and include a scale bar in each. Label the following. Antrum. Graafian follicle. Oogonia. Primary oocyte. Secondary oocyte. Follicle cell layer. Zona radiata. Zona pellucida. Corpus luteum/Corpus albicans. Tunica Albuginea. Remember, you are responsible for the function of each structure that you label.

All-in-all, this seems to be working. All that is removed is having the students make the actual slide (and that truly is too bad), but they are engaged in a far greater manner then they ever would be by merely studying a prelabeled image. As examples of some before/after images, I offer the following.

Mature Mouse Ovary; 200X

Fig. 1: Progressive oogenesis in the 12 week mouse ovary; 200x

James T. Wetzel, PhD
Pulaski L. Bealy Smith Professor of Biology
Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina

« previous | Fall 2020 | next »