Human Anatomy: How A Non-Traditional Approach to Undergraduate Instruction is Preparing Students for the Future | Ashleigh Everhardt Queen, Ed.D. ’20

Photo by Addie Berard & Joe McClain

The human anatomy labs at William & Mary allow for students to learn the structures of the human body through viewing this in a human cadaver. This hands-on experience aids students in being successful in graduate school and their eventual career in healthcare as they learn the anatomy in the system that they will be working with in their careers

Science laboratories have been a part of my educational experience for as long as I can recall, both as a student and as a lecturer.  I have had the opportunity to be a part of many different types of lab courses in my past and present, but the commonality that across these courses is that they provide a hands-on application of theoretical concepts.  This application of principles is especially true for anatomy. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines anatomy as “the art of separating the parts of an organism in order to ascertain their position, relations, structure, and function.”  While an anatomy lecture course can provide information related to the various structures in the human body, the anatomy lab experience aids students in grasping organ arrangement in real-time.

At William & Mary, the Kinesiology & Health Sciences Department houses a Human Anatomy Cadaver Lab, which contains two to three human cadavers per semester at any given time.  This lab provides a unique experience for our undergraduate students that is not the norm. In fact, William & Mary is one of the few institutions in the state that allows undergraduate students the opportunity to dissect and observe a human cadaver to learn the anatomical arrangements of the human body.  Having taught anatomy lab courses at three different institutions, I can attest to the differential experience that William & Mary students receive in this course. For instance, at most institutions, including the two that I previously worked at, animals are used in place of human cadavers. While this does allow students to work with actual tissues, animal specimens do not provide students with a clear understanding of the structure of the human body

Teaching an anatomy lab with human cadavers is a very different experience than working with animal specimens, and as such is handled with care here at William & Mary.  In order to help acclimate the students to the lab environment, each instructor opens the course with an explanation of the importance of using human cadavers to study human anatomy.  One clear rationale that we provide to our students is the fact that most, if not all, want to pursue careers in the health sciences, and therefore they will need an understanding of how the human body is structured.  Through the practice of dissecting and viewing a human cadaver, students have the ability to see the structural arrangement and are able to begin to understand how the arrangement of tissues is connected to their function.  Regardless of the specific path, there is a common thread: the patients that our students will encounter in their careers will be human. By having the experience of interacting with a human cadaver, William & Mary students are better prepared for graduate school, which often begins with a dissection human anatomy lab, and their eventual careers working with human patients.  

Photo by Addie Berard  & Joe McClain; Author with students working in W&M’s cadaver lab

Another equally important item that we discuss with our students is that we always work from a place of respect for our cadavers.  Cadavers are available to educational institutions because individuals donate their bodies for the educational benefit of others. With that in mind, we strive to appreciate the cadaver and the person who allowed us to have this unique educational experience.  In addition to this, we also begin the anatomy lab each semester learning about the anterior and posterior surfaces of the thigh. This has a two-fold purpose. First, the structures and muscles in this area are those that most students are familiar with, such as the hamstrings and quadriceps.  This also is a bit more impersonal than starting at other areas of the body. For instance, the hands and feet of a cadaver tend to elicit stronger responses due to the distinctly human nature of these body parts. We have found that by beginning on a large portion of the leg, far from these more personal areas, the students tend to acclimate to the lab more easily.  This is not to say that it is a “normal” experience during their first class period, but it does help the students ease into this unusual undergraduate learning experience.

The Human Anatomy Cadaver lab presents a distinctive educational experience to undergraduate students at William & Mary.  Many of our former students who are now in graduate school programs across the country return to us with an appreciation for this lab course, as it helped to set them up for success in the early weeks and months of their graduate programs.  In Kinesiology & Health Sciences, we pride ourselves on providing this rare undergraduate educational experience to students as we feel that it is an important preparation for their future educational experiences and careers.

Working in Kinesiology & Health Sciences, I have had the opportunity to work with students in lab and lecture settings.  I teach all of the Human Physiology Labs, a course and lab on microbiology, and our large introductory course, Intro to the Human Body.  While all of the classes are varied in nature, they all allow me to work with students, my true passion and reason for teaching. I originally enrolled in William & Mary’s School of Education in order to learn more about higher education and learn ways to better serve my students.  The education that I have gained through the School of Education has empowered me to be a better instructor to the students who come to our department. My dissertation research stemmed from this desire to provide students with the resources they need to be successful, specifically through academic advising.  The courses that I teach, including the anatomy lab, have led to interactions with students that allowed me to become their advisor. Through my research, I hope to understand how advising, specifically in transfer student populations, can aid in student success. The School of Education and my career as a Senior Lecturer at William & Mary have allowed me the opportunity to serve students and aid them in completing their academic journeys

About the Author: Ashleigh Everhardt Queen is an Ed.D. ’20 student in the Educational Policy, Planning, & Leadership program. In addition to this, Ashleigh is a Senior Lecturer in the Kinesiology & Health Sciences Department at William & Mary. Her dissertation research is related to understanding how academic advising can play a role in the transition process of STEM transfer students.