Human Anatomy Class Leverages Unique Resources for Lifelong Learning

by Laurie Laker ’12

The study of the human body at Colorado College is something of a unique opportunity for an undergraduate student body. CC is one of the very few colleges in the country, particularly among our liberal arts peer schools, where students can immerse themselves fully in the study of the human anatomy, applying their classroom theory with real-world practice.

“We’re extremely careful about how we present the anatomy lab, what we say about the lab, because we want to be as respectful as possible to the donors,” explains Professor Dan Miska of the Human Biology and Kinesiology Department.

‘Donors’ is the language of the department and all those who move through their classes, rooted in respect for the persons who’ve donated their bodies to scientific teaching and research. The class Introduction to Human Anatomy, running this Block A, lets students gain an understanding of the fundamental concepts of human anatomy, and includes the examination of skeletal, muscular, nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory structures.

“I’d estimate that 90 percent of our students go on to some form of medical program,” Miska adds. “Anatomy has the reputation of being all about memorization, but what we try to teach here is the true applicability of the material — to the clinical work of a future career.”

“For example, with certain diagnoses we bring socioeconomic issues into our discussions as well. Cases like heart attacks, for example, often hinge upon diet and exercise, which in turn frequently hinge on the socioeconomic status of the patient,” adds Miska. “It’s a clinical class, but with applicable knowledge and social awareness woven throughout.”

The class is a combination of clinical study modules and laboratory sessions, and students work in small groups to diagnose a hypothetical injury or condition using the methodology of clinicians — asking questions, noting patients’ medical histories, and then offering a possible diagnosis.

“I’m taking this partly for my major, partly because it’s super interesting,” says Nabeel Elabdeia ’20, who majors in Organismal Biology and Ecology.

“It’s so different from the textbook type of class, a lot more messy — just like real life medical practice.”

“This kind of work — particularly with the donors — it makes me think about real doctors, how difficult it is to diagnose real people. I was a bit nervous at first, but you soon learn to dissociate from the personal and treat it as a learning experience.” Elabdeia, who plans to head to dental school after CC, adds.

“It’s not just checking a box,” Miska details, expanding more on the longer-term goals of the class.

“Students take this because it’s going to follow you in life, to set you up for what you’re doing for a career — these are practical life skills for impactful careers, and that we can offer the practical skills of body diagnosis at the undergrad level is incredible. It gives our students such a head start when they head to med school after CC.”

Nerves are commonplace among students before heading to the lab for the first time — understandably so, given the nature of the material. But it’s no deterrent — the clinical experience of examining a human body and all its systems is often the chief attraction for students taking the class.

“I was anxious but excited for the lab before we went in,” explains undeclared major Julia Moore ’20, who is on the Molecular Biology track and minoring in Human Biology and Kinesiology. “To be honest, it was very much a ‘let’s get this first one over with’ scenario. We get to see this, to do this, from the first day of class, and that’s amazing.”

“It’s a very, very respectful space, aware of the donors and their wishes, and having access to this sort of facility is quite unique for an undergraduate experience,” she says.

“I actually visited the lab as a prospective student, and it’s one of the reasons I came to CC — it’s a special thing that undergrads don’t always get to do,” adds Moore’s lab group partner, Rianna Reimers ’19, a Molecular Biology major who’ll be interning with a genetics lab in her home state of California after the class finishes.

“The way Dan presents the class, and especially the interactions we have with the donors, it’s amazing — respect is the utmost important thing. He even said, on day one, ‘These (meaning the donors) are the four best anatomy teachers you’ll ever have’ — that’s really stuck with me.”

Dan Miska’s Block A Human Anatomy class discusses a case study and views a carpal tunnel surgery online to learn more about the mechanics of a hand to better diagnose treatment.

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