Design Projects in Human Anatomy & Physiology
Polizzotto, Kristin, Ortiz, Mary T., The American Biology Teacher
Very often, some type of writing assignment is required in college entry-level Human Anatomy and Physiology courses. This assignment can be anything from an essay to a research paper on the literature, focusing on a faculty-approved topic of interest to the student. As educators who teach Human Anatomy and Physiology at an urban community college, we believe it is important to provide students with an assignment that challenges not only their knowledge of the subject, but also their imaginations (McGraw, 2004b). To achieve this goal, we assign Design Projects in Human Anatomy and Physiology.
Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, New York, is one of six community colleges in The City University of New York. In the Kingsborough Department of Biological Sciences, a two-semester sequence of courses in Human Anatomy and Physiology is required of students majoring in one of the Allied Health Science fields, such as Pre-Physician Assistant, Pre-Physical Therapy, Pre-Nursing, Pre-Occupational Therapy, and so on.
The first semester includes study of anatomical terminology, basic chemistry, the metric system, the cell, tissues, and the skeletal, muscular, nervous, and endocrine systems. The second semester focuses on the digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, immune, excretory, and reproductive systems. In each semester, one writing assignment is required for successful completion of the course. The assignment can be a review of the literature or an alternate of the instructor's choosing. This is where we opt to assign a Design Project.
The First Semester
It has been our experience that first semester students of Human Anatomy and Physiology are often overwhelmed with the volume and complexity of material they are required to learn. Students sometimes express that the material is "boring" and dry. To add some spark to the class, we have assigned one of several design projects to challenge our students and to help them get a handle on the course content.
Design Project 1: New Organelle for the Cell
A portion of the course is devoted to the study of the cell, the basic unit of life. The cell is examined in general, and the structure and function of each organelle is studied in some detail. Aside from traditional testing on this topic, we wanted another way to ascertain whether our students really understood the workings of the cell. Hence, our first design assignment was born. The assignment is to design a new and different organelle for the typical human cell. The student must name his/her organelle, fully describe its structure and function, how it interacts with other organelles of the cell, how it will improve the cell, and what potential problems this new organelle may impose on the cell. An accompanying diagram of the new organelle and of the organelle's location in the cell is also a requirement, as well as each student's opinion of the assignment.
Over the years, we have been taken aback by the creativity of our students. For example, one student designed the "Michelobia." The student had a taste for beer, and thought it would be wonderful if she could enjoy it without getting drunk. This organelle had detoxifying properties to allow cells to process beer and prevent the ill effects of alcohol. Another student felt like he never had time to eat properly. He thought it would be wonderful if he, like plants, could make his own food. So, he designed a chloroplast-like organelle to do the job.
Design Project 2: New System of Measurement
Although this topic is not always included in Anatomy and Physiology courses, at Kingsborough (where this is an entry-level course), students must comprehend the international system if they are to understand standard physiological data.
The metric system can be a challenging topic for students who have spent their lives up to this point immersed in the English system. An innovative approach to under standing the metric system is to assign a design project where each student must create a completely new system of measurement, including units for length, mass and volume, and explain how these units relate to the metric system with relevant examples. In order for each student to complete this design project, he or she must first understand the metric system. Initially, it seems a monumental task for the students, but as they work on their system, they gradually find their understanding of metrics increases. Allowing the students to name their system (along with the units involved), to explain how they came up with their ideas, and to indicate whether their system would be a better replacement for existing systems, provides them with an opportunity for added creativity and fun. Many students name their systems after themselves or someone they know. For example, the hypothetical student John Doe may create the "Doe System of Measurement." The basic unit in his system may be the "doe," which is equivalent to the length of the student's index finger. A certain number of "does" equals a "john," and a "john" is equivalent to one meter.
Design Project 3: New Element
This design project is aimed at increasing knowledge of basic chemistry, including the structure of atoms, and the role of electrons in forming bonds. This project involves naming a "newly-discovered" element, describing its physical properties (melting and boiling points, state at room temperature, etc.), and describing its chemical properties (atomic number and mass, bonding properties, etc.). Part of this assignment involves explaining how they came up with the idea for this "element" and providing their opinion of the assignment. Again, many students tend to name their newly-discovered element after themselves. A student named Jane Smith might name her element "smithium" and describe it with a boiling point of 0 [degrees] C and a freezing point of -100[degrees] C. She should also include the valence of one atom of her element, its affinity for bonding with other atoms, and what kind of bonds it is likely to form (covalent, polar or nonpolar, ionic, hydrogen). Understanding the behavior of atoms and molecules is vital to understanding cellular physiology, and this project can help students to comprehend the necessary chemical knowledge.
Design Project 4: Cell Survival in Various Environments
In this design project, each student is given (assigned or drawn by lottery) a hypothetical environment in which a generic human cell will be placed, and the student has to decide if the cell could survive in that environment, why or why not, and if not, how the cell could be modified so that it might be able to survive. Sample environments may include: microgravity (weightlessness), a soap dish, the tundra, in a refrigerator, in a dry incubator, in a test tube of nutrients (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates), in a greenhouse, on a kitchen stove, on the floor of a hospital operating room, on a mountain top, on a windowsill, on asphalt, or in seawater. Each of these environments presents a unique set of hostile conditions that would make survival for the cell difficult, if not impossible. Most students realize that the generic human cell could not survive on its own in their assigned environment. The task then is to redesign the cell so that it could survive. For example, in the case of the cell placed in seawater, one suggestion was made to modify the cell membrane with new specialized channels to prevent water loss in this hypertonic environment. In the case of the cell placed in a tundra environment, it was once suggested that the cell membrane consist of additional lipid layers or material to better insulate the cell from cold temperatures. In each case, an understanding of general cell biology is pre-requisite for designing necessary changes to insure survival.
Design Project 5: More Effective Joints
In the first semester of Human Anatomy and Physiology, students spend significant time memorizing the names and positions of bones and muscles. While the information is vital, this task can be difficult and tedious. One way to motivate the students is to have them evaluate the design of human joints. For this project, students choose common joint injuries related to sports or other human movement, such as a torn knee ligament from skiing or a rotator cuff injury from playing baseball. Instructors could provide a list or allow students to come up with their own ideas. After selecting an injury, students must design a joint that would reduce the frequency of such injuries. Each project should begin with a description of the type of movement required for the selected activity (e.g., knee flexion/ extension, leg adduction/ abduction). The student then describes in detail a common injury sustained during this activity, and proposes design features that may prevent or lessen damage to the joint. Each project should also include a diagram of the newly-designed joint, with any novel anatomical features named appropriately.
This design project may benefit students in several ways. First, as with any design project, the opportunity to be creative and to engage with the material improves learning and retention of the core concepts (Price, 1995; Shakes, 1995). Second, by designing a new joint, students are encouraged to think about how muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels, etc. must work together, rather than to simply memorize each anatomical name as a separate entity. Finally, the assignment engages students by giving them the opportunity to integrate their interests (e.g., medicine, nursing, physical therapy, sports) with the course content. This opportunity helps to create interest in a subject that may otherwise seem monotonous.
The Second Semester
Design Project 6: New Organ System
By the time their final semester of Human Anatomy and Physiology has arrived, students have come a long way in their understanding of the body. At this point in their academic careers, they can be challenged with more sophisticated design projects (Leventon, 2002; Constans, 2003; Langer & Tirrell, 2004). After having studied each of the 11 organ systems in some detail, now is the time to present this challenge: Design a new additional organ system for the human body. Each student must name his/her organ system, briefly describe what it is and does, fully describe its anatomy and physiology and include a diagram, explain how it interacts with the other organ systems, indicate whether it could actually exist and why, and provide his/her opinion of the assignment.
Some of the many interesting ideas students have come up with over the years include the following:
1. A Gill System
This system provides gills for allowing breathing under water to prevent drowning.
2. Weight Control Glands
As an addition to the gastrointestinal system, these glands react when they sense the body is overweight. They increase metabolism and work in conjunction with the thyroid and adrenal glands to release enzymes and hormones to reduce the superfluous adipose tissue.
3. The Pharmogenetic System
The organs of this system produce medications via a process called "pharmogenesis." An organ, the MM (Medicine Maker), recognizes specific diseases and the drugs to treat them, then produces these drugs to combat the disease via specialized cells called "pharmocytes."
4. Oven Man
The student who created this system did not like to cook. She felt that if you could place food in your mouth, have the necessary organs to cook it there and swallow it, her life would be much easier!
5. Verde Integumentary System
This project was similar to the chloroplast-like organelle designed by a student in the first semester (see Design Project 1). One student designed a second skin system, complete with cells containing chloroplasts. One problem suggested with this new system was that other people may have difficulty accepting a green human.
Design Project 7: Performing Effective CPR in Microgravity
One of the authors has always had a fascination with manned space flight. Microgravity, more commonly known as weightlessness, presents a plethora of physiological obstacles that humans must tackle to survive in space. In the absence of gravity, blood distribution changes, equilibrium is affected, vision may be altered, visceral organs shift. These are just a few of the many changes that occur.
Dealing with medical emergencies in space will be difficult, to say the least. One cannot simply call for an ambulance to go to the hospital. The emergency must be dealt with on the spot in an alien environment. The prospects can be ominous indeed. What if an astronaut goes into respiratory or cardiac arrest while on a space mission? Keeping all of this in mind, we came up with a design project to have the students find an effective way to perform CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) in microgravity.
As many students are not familiar with space flight or microgravity, or may not yet be trained in CPR, it is necessary to present the conditions of the problem in some detail. To accomplish this, a mannequin is brought into class and a CPR demonstration is provided, along with an explanation of how and why CPR works on Earth. It is stressed that gravity helps to play an important role in the success of this life-saving technique. Design plans and specifications for the U.S. Space Shuttle are also presented to the class so that students may study the physical environment and constraints. Printed reference materials are provided to each student (Joels ST Kennedy, 1988; Hazinski et al., 2006).
Once students realize the difficulty in dealing with the problems of microgravity, they begin to integrate human anatomy and physiology principles with their new knowledge of CPR and weightlessness in order to solve the problem. It presents a real challenge, one that has a practical application and engages problem-solving skills (Ottino, 2004).
Student Reactions & Feedback
When the design assignments are first presented to the class, there is often an unusual silence. At first the students think you're kidding, or that you're totally crazy. Invariably, one brave soul will speak up and ask, "What do you mean by this? I don't understand the assignment. Can you explain this to us? Can you give us an example?" Many are overwhelmed and have no idea where to start. However, encouraging them to have fun and to be creative, along with some open discussion, will eventually get them thinking. Once discussion begins and the instructor provides an example, such as designing the anatomical structures to allow a human to fly, students begin to realize that they can use their own creativity to come up with an appropriate idea (McGraw, 2004b). It is useful to require the instructor's approval of students' ideas so that they each come up with something unique to work on.
This type of project requires some time for thought. Usually, a month is sufficient for students to imagine and create a design. One of the most difficult issues is that they won't find their ideas in a book, a journal, or on the Internet. This may be very alien for them, although in terms of assessing students' understanding of a topic, it is useful to assign something that cannot be "found," but must come entirely from the students' own thinking and analysis.
The benefits of this type of assignment have been described through informal feedback from the students themselves during both laboratory and lecture sessions. Most students express positive attitudes toward the design project. They often say they were initially put off by it, but that as they thought about it over time, they actually enjoyed the experience, and gained a better understanding of the relevant anatomy and physiology of the real systems. Often students have commented that although at first they thought the assignments were bizarre, they found the experience really helped them. For example, the students had to understand the role of each organelle in the cell to be able to describe how their new organelle would interact with them. Similarly, in order to integrate the function of a new organ system, students would need to understand the function of existing systems. In addition to encouraging study of each organelle or each organ system as an independent entity, the design projects encourage students to consider emergent properties of interacting structures and systems. This higher-order level of thinking underscores the value of a design project.
Typically, one design project is assigned in a semester and is worth 109b of the course grade. The assignment is scored out of 100 points, with the following grading rubric:
Title page 5% Abstract 10% Diagram to accompany the text 15% Main body 40% (including the anatomy arid physiology of the organelle or organ system, complete properties of the element, details of the measurement system, etc.) Discussion 20% (including how the student arrived at the idea for the design, problems that may have incurred with the design, their opinion of the assignment) English composition 10%
We have also found it helpful to require a first draft two weeks after the initial assignment, which is then returned to the students with feedback for improving the final draft.
Some Final Thoughts
Writing assignments are incorporated into all of the biology courses at Kingsborough Community College, in conjunction with the Writing Across the Curriculum program. The goal of incorporating writing in content courses is to promote organization, synthesis, arid retention of the knowledge presented in the course. Studies of' coherent organization of knowledge, content retention, and course grades have shown that writing increases all of these measures of academic success (Rivard et al., 2000; Mlynarczyk & Babbitt, 2002; smith et al., 2007). Design projects in particular have been shown to improve learning achievements in courses such as calculus (Verner & Maor, 2001).
An innovative approach to writing, such as a design project, also offers students with different learning strategies an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. For example, students who struggle with multiple-choice exams but excel at visual or tactile conceptualization may benefit from a creative writing assignment of the type described here. A combination of assessment methods that takes into account many different learning styles is most likely to help students he successful in science (or any other) courses (Felder & Silverman, 1988; Felder, 1993).
Creativity is a skill rarely developed in biology courses, but one that has value (Price, 1995; shakes, 1995; Kessels et al., 2O06). Creative thinking involves "extreme freedom of thought [and] an emphasis on independent thinking" (Thomas Friedman, as quoted in McGraw, 2004b). We may not typically associate those ideals with Introductory Human Anatomy and Physiology, but creativity is vital in many emerging fields in biology. For example, the skills learned in design projects are directly applicable at the frontiers of biomedical research. A few areas in which creative designing is essential are tissue and organ engineering (Leventon, 2002; Constans, 2004), the design of microelectric devices that restore vision, hearing, and movement (McGraw, 2004a), biomaterials research (e.g., drug delivery systems, medical devices; Langer & Tirrell, 2004), and technology to assist the elderly in everyday tasks (Dishman, 2004).
In addition to capturing students' interest and helping there learn the material better, design projects, enhance creative thinking skills. Creative ability may be inborn to a certain extent, but all students can enlarge upon their natural talents by exercising their imaginations. One may ask whether developing creativity is really critical in a course in human anatomy and physiology. While the course content is paramount, the value of fostering creative thinking skills should not be underestimated. Creative thinking and the application of memorized facts to real situations enhance problem solving, and it is difficult to think of a single career in the health sciences that does not require strong problem-solving skills. Students who continue on to graduate studies may gain a competitive edge by sharpening their creative thinking skills. In order to produce graduates who are innovative problem-solvers, students must be given multiple opportunities to develop these skills. Design projects offer such an opportunity.
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KRISTIN POLIZZOTTO (Kristin.Polizzotto@kbcc.cuny.edu) is Assistant Professor, and MARY T. ORTIZ (email@example.com) is Professor, both in the Department of Biological Sciences, Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY 11235.…
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Publication information: Article title: Design Projects in Human Anatomy & Physiology. Contributors: Polizzotto, Kristin - Author, Ortiz, Mary T. - Author. Journal title: The American Biology Teacher. Volume: 70. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2008. Page number: 230+. © National Association of Biology Teachers Mar 2009. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.