Gross Anatomy 2.0

Traditional anatomy education may seem incongruous with iPads but three third-year students at P&S took an idea hatched in their first year to make iPads a ubiquitous addition to the cadaver table.

Dustin Tetzl’14, Justin Neira’14, and Jose Ramirez’14, along with Lily Grossmann, a SUNY Downstate College of Medicine student, created an innovative dissecting manual that received rave reviews from P&S students and generated interest from several publishers. An iPad application followed naturally from the manual’s popularity.

The idea for a new manual came from Mr. Tetzl toward the end of his five-month anatomy course during first year. “The manuals have step-by-step instructions that show you what you’re supposed to do in lab,” he says, “but the manual we used had lots of line drawings and no photos. Your cadaver never looked like the idealized drawing. It was frustrating.”

Students also complained that the manual contained too much extraneous information. “You would stand there and get bombarded with this peripheral information about the embryological origins of the structure and still not know where to start,” Mr. Neira says.

Mr. Tetzl’s idea was to provide photos of each step of the dissection. He recruited Mr. Neira and Mr. Ramirez to help, and the group approached Paulette Bernd, PhD, the course director, with the idea of creating a new manual during the summer after their first year, in time for the next anatomy class.

They first tried working with a publishing template that provided drawings and text that could be tailored to different curricula, but the tool would not allow the photos that the group felt would be the strength of the planned manual.

“Basically, we had to start from scratch,” Mr. Neira says.

Soon the students were in the anatomy lab 12 hours a day, every day, dissecting a cadaver and taking tens of thousands of photos. 

The most challenging part of the project, the students say, was finishing before the incoming medical school class started anatomy. They completed the dissections, but the process of writing and editing continued throughout the fall. Dr. Bernd edited and revised the sequence and method of dissections to produce the final manual.

The pages of the first chapters rolled off the printer just hours before the class began and the manual became a hit. “The students gave it excellent reviews. The manual is more streamlined than most others out there, and the photos are beautiful,” says Dr. Bernd, professor of clinical pathology.

The manual seemed to improve students’ grasp of anatomy. “I thought their dissections came out better, with fewer errors. Also, their exam grades were significantly higher—and those scores have been stable for years.”

Last year, the authors presented the manual at two conferences and were finalists in the Innovations in Anatomical Education competition held by the American Association of Anatomists. “We didn’t win but we generated a lot of interest, including from a number of publishers,” Mr. Ramirez says.

Jesse Koskey’15, Alison Levy’15, Tristan Hunt’15, Adam De Fazio’15, dental student Michelle Castro, and postbac student Stephen Cassidy joined the project last summer, working to fix problems in the first edition, make short instructional videos, and develop an iPad version of the manual. The iPad app prototype debuted with the Class of 2016. “First-year medical students used it as their primary in-lab dissection manual throughout the fall semester, with an iPad at each cadaver table as they did dissections,” says Mr. Tetzl. “They expressed overwhelming satisfaction with the iPad version and scored even better than previous classes.”

The students are writing an academic paper about the success of the manual and talking with publishers about distribution of the manual and iPad app to other schools. “We hope this will revolutionize the way anatomy is taught in the lab, making it much more interactive and modern, and we hope it will be a flexible model other schools can easily adopt,” says Mr. Tetzl.  

He hopes to spend this summer leading a group of first-year medical students in perfecting the app and adding chapter quizzes and interactive video. Dr. Bernd expects students to be involved in further development of the project for many summers to come.

Success is not just about the manual and its app. “The overarching theme here is that we, as students, saw something in our curriculum that could be improved,” Mr. Neira says, “and instead of not doing anything about it, we worked with our faculty to fix it.”