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Kinesiology and applied physiology students use the department’s new virtual anatomy tables to isolate ligaments, tissues, and arteries in the hand. UD is one of few schools in the country to offer this cutting-edge tech to undergraduate students.

Virtual anatomy tables offer realistic learning outside of cadaver lab: youtube.com/watch?v=N82V4QkcpKI

Virtual Anatomy

Photo by Ashley Barnas Larrimore

Cutting-edge tech gives students a 3D look at anatomy

The human body's intricate anatomy is vividly displayed in 3D on an interactive screen, comparable to a 50-inch television. This practical teaching and learning tool allows University of Delaware students to study the human body and highlight bones, muscles, veins, arteries, nerves, and tissue in shades of blue, purple, red, and green. These virtual anatomy tables serve as many students’ first real hands-on encounter with anatomical structures.

“It’s as close as students can get to real anatomy without actually being in the cadaver lab,” said Saskia Richter, assistant professor of kinesiology and applied physiology (KAAP) in the College of Health Sciences (CHS). 

UD is among a handful of institutions nationwide to offer the innovative Toltech VH Dissector tables to undergraduate students. 

The Toltech anatomy tables, which include images rendered by a human donor instead of computer-generated images, are being piloted this spring with honors anatomy and physiology and functional anatomy students; they will be rolled out to students in various majors this fall.  

“Simulated anatomy offerings are up and coming in medical education,” Richter said. “We’re grateful for this grant support and the support of CHS Dean Bill Farquhar to offer this realistic, three-dimensional look at anatomy that will bring our students one step closer to better understanding the relationships between anatomical structures that will enhance their clinical skills.” 

In Professor Sheara Williamson’s Human Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) II class, students work on case studies, comparing healthy anatomical structures to pathological conditions. She hopes they gain a better understanding of anatomical structure. 

“Right now, students have access to a plastinated arm and leg, but it’s hard to differentiate between blood vessels and nerve when everything looks like beige tissue,” she said. 

The virtual anatomy tables change all that. 

“When looking at the cardiovascular system, we can follow blood flow. Students can view vessels and structures in relation to the rest of the body, which they can’t see on models,” said teaching assistant Serena Schade, who will graduate in May with her master’s in exercise science. 

Senior human physiology major Kaila McCabe said the realistic 3D imagery aids in her understanding.

“It shows the muscles and the vasculature and really helps identify what you’re looking at because you can enlarge and rotate the model,” McCabe said. 

The system also offers clinical imaging, including X-rays, ultrasounds, and MRIs. What’s also great – students can save imagery on a flash drive and review it at home. Williamson added that the learning curve wasn’t steep, at least regarding the tech. 

“It’s simple, just like using a tablet or an iPad,” Williamson said. “Students quickly figured out how to manipulate the model.”

Richter said the tables allow students to explore the relationships of anatomy in applicable ways in a safe space.

“In the cadaver lab, you get one chance in a dissection; if a student accidentally removes the left biceps, we can’t put it back. All we can do is ensure we don’t make the mistake on the right side,” said Richter. “But on the Toltech table, if they remove a bicep, we can put it back. So, I hope this helps them understand relationships, so they don’t make that same mistake in the cadaver lab.” 

Using virtual anatomy tables has made senior human physiology major Jillian Wright feel more confident in the cadaver lab. She’s looking forward to studying organs.

“I’m a big fan of the heart,” said Wright. “So, I’m excited to get in there, dissect all the organs and learn about the different parts.” 

McCabe called dissection an art form enhanced by the virtual anatomy tables. 

“To not accidentally cut out the nerves and to preserve structures takes a lot of studying,” McCabe said. “We need to know what muscles we’re looking for and where they are in the body so that when we move into the cadaver lab, we can properly identify them.” 

Honors A&P students observe a dissection in the cadaver lab but don’t test their skills. That’s reserved for fourth-year undergraduate and master's-level students in KAAP. 

“Many students won’t ever see a cadaver in their time here at UD, so these virtual anatomy tables are as close as they get to hands-on experience,” Williamson said.

McCabe, who plans to take a gap year before medical school, said virtual anatomy has given her a leg up.

“For many students, the first time they’ll step into a cadaver lab is in medical school,” McCabe said. “I’m very grateful to have this opportunity to apply what I’ve learned so I’ll feel more confident and comfortable in medical school.”  

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