Hands-on technology gives anatomy/physiology students a competitive edge

Dr. Smith assists students conducting a blood pressure experiment on the Lt platform using digital sensors
Dr. Smith assists students conducting a blood pressure experiment on the Lt platform using digital sensors

Technology is critical in the college classroom and perhaps even more so for students of the health sciences. In the fall of 2022, Biology professors Silvia Smith and Crystal Walline secured nearly $15,000 in grant money from UNC Pembroke’s Teaching and Learning Center. Their aim was to purchase technologies for anatomy & physiology (BIO 2110 and 2120) laboratories that would give UNCP students learning experiences on par with experiences at larger universities in the UNC System and abroad. An overarching goal was to make students competitive and give them equal opportunities for advancing their education in the health sciences.

How might technology benefit instructional design and shape learning? What role does it have in the health professions? How are UNCP students better prepared for the workforce as a result? Drs. Smith and Walline answer these questions, and many more, while describing how they use technologies as pedagogical tools in their anatomy/physiology laboratories.

Which hands-on activities are included during lab periods, and what are the objectives/goals for these activities?
Our BIO 2110 and 2120 labs are taught using the ADInstruments Lt digital platform, which serves as a digital lab manual, repository of images taken in lab, and physiological data collection and analysis. In general, this platform will allow students to meet the following course-wide learning outcomes:

  • Identify anatomical structures in lab (and on the Lt module) and apply the knowledge of those structures to understand physiological principles.

  • Collect physiological data on themselves or other students in the group. 

  • Analyze the collected data directly on the digital platform using Lt software.

  • Graph/represent the output of analyses using the Lt software.

  • Reflect on the output of the analysis by applying their findings to explain physiological principles.

  • Collaborate with peers and to learn how to share responsibilities, duties, and knowledge in an academic and pre-clinical setting. 

Moreover, instructors can use, edit, or add module-specific learning outcomes for each Lt module (e.g., Figures 1 & 2 in photo gallery below). The learning outcomes can be adjusted to align with the lecture portion of the class or with the introduction (lecture) part of lab. 

How critical is technology in anatomy/physiology studies at the college level?
Teaching physiology without technology is extremely difficult because it requires the illustration of complex and abstract concepts that are not easily described or simulated. Using the Lt platform, our students collect, visualize, and analyze their own data. While some physiological measurements (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate, and nerve conduction) can be taken without a digital platform, the collected data are not easily analyzed. Lt offers one single platform where students can read background information, collect data, and analyze it, without having to employ multiple types of software applications. In fact, the Lt platform is employed by 100 of the top universities and by over 10,000 institutions globally and is cited in over 300,000 peer-reviewed articles (https://www.adinstruments.com/lt). We were glad to be able to bring this cutting edge pedagogical and research tool to UNCP. 

How has new equipment benefitted instruction?
Drs. Walline and Smith have been able to employ a blended pedagogical model that facilitates the learning of complex anatomical and physiological concepts. A blended pedagogical model is defined as a student-centered model, where direct instruction is combined with interactive digital guided work (Vasquez 2020).  Direct data acquisition and analysis cannot be executed at the same level with analog equipment. This is in part because the exercises are not interactive and because collected data cannot be easily represented and analyzed in a meaningful way. More specifically, this platform allows students to: 

  1. actively collect real physiological data in lab using non-invasive techniques

  2. analyze the data systematically using user-friendly state-of-the art software

  3. collaborate with peers in lab, thus being prompted to discuss and interpret data in a collaborative way

  4. use the content of each customizable Lt lab modules as the laboratory manual, followed by interactive pre- and post- lab exercises and quizzes. 

Likewise, this blended pedagogical model aids faculty by:

  1. reducing lab set-up time

  2. providing one platform for grading all laboratory module submissions, and easily integrating grades in CANVAS

  3. offering a visual representation to be utilized in lab of real physiological data (e.g., blood pressure, nerve conduction, and electrocardiogram data), which can be used as a prompt for discussion for and collaborative analysis of otherwise abstract concepts.

How do the new technologies and hands-on experiences better prepare students for the workforce?
As new technology is continually employed in the technology sector, business, and medicine, the use of classroom technology will facilitate the development of technical skills and digital literacy which can be applied to the global workforce. For example, medicine now employs artificial intelligence, 3D printing, telemedicine, health wearables, and robotics to provide faster, more precise, and personalized medicine. By integrating technology-based learning in the classroom, students will gain a deeper understanding of the subject and be more adept in combining their knowledge with technological advances to solve problems efficiently and collaboratively.

Which activities do students enjoy most?
Students enjoy the pre-labs, which often have interactive exercises which allow them to learn abstract knowledge in a fun way. Students also like data acquisition labs which, albeit challenging, are rewarding as they often result in a better understanding of truly challenging topics. Finally, students like the fact that their digital lab manual also functions as a central repository for all of the data, analysis, and interpretation from every lab conducted during the semester.

In the Spring 2024 semester we have 109 BIO 2110 students and 83 BIO 2120 students. At least half are pre-nursing students. Many are Kinesiology/Exercise Science or Biology majors who intend on pursing a health career like Medicine, Physician Assistant, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Dentistry, or Pharmacy.

In what ways has the Lt platform helped their students?  Here's a sampling of student responses to an anonymous survey:

  • It's helped me look at the material outside of lecture and find a way to understand it. 
  • it has helped me learn material faster and actually have good knowledge about the topics 
  • Helped me as an additional resource for completing assignments 
  • made learning the lab material more interactive 
  • It has helped me learn better through visualization and being able to learn more hands on. 
  • It helped me learn 
  • It helped me have a another resource to review material in both my lab and lecture that's accessible 
  • Lt has helped me visualize the material 
  • It has helped with memorization
  • It helped me with understanding the parts of the bones and muscles better 
  • It has helped me learn and study the material better. It has also helped me memorize the parts of the organs.

Drs. Walline and Smith's pedagogical model, which accommodates the needs of a non-traditional student population, has been featured in the conference Brain Trust and can be reviewed in this article by ADInstruments.
Web manager's note: Besides engaging students in the classroom and laboratory, both professors mentor students in independent research.

Ref: Vásquez Astudillo M. (2020) The Blended Learning Pedagogical Model in Higher Education. In: Martín-García A. (eds) Blended Learning: Convergence between Technology and Pedagogy. Lecture Notes in Networks and Systems, vol 126. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-45781-5_7