Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Modelling Muscles: Students Create Leg-Muscle Models to Learn about Muscle Structure and Function

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Modelling Muscles: Students Create Leg-Muscle Models to Learn about Muscle Structure and Function

Article excerpt


Teaching the anatomy of the muscle system to high school students can be challenging. Students often learn about muscle anatomy by memorizing information from textbooks or by observing plastic, inflexible models. Although these mediums help students learn about muscle placement, the mediums do not facilitate understanding regarding integration of the skeletal and muscular systems. To make learning about muscle origins, insertions, and movement an interactive experience, we created a lab in which students construct full-size muscle models out of plastic skeletons, nylon stockings, and various types of tape.

Active participation

Working in groups to construct muscles encourages students to collaborate and actively participate in learning. Students learn better and remember more when they are active participants (Springer, Stanne, and Donovan 1999). Edgar Dale proposed a "Cone of Experience" that categorized different learning techniques based on the level of student participation (1969).

According to Dale's model, students who participate in active-learning exercises, with the greatest student involvement, remember 70-90% of what they say, write, or do after two weeks; students who learn with passive techniques (hearing or reading) only recall 10-30% of the lesson after two weeks (Dale 1969). In addition, learning is more effective when the teacher works as a facilitator and students learn with their peers. "The best answer to the question, 'What is the most effective method of teaching?' is that it depends on the goal, the student, the content, and the teacher. But the next best answer is, 'students teaching other students'" (McKeachie 1998).

Lab framework

Focus and materials

This lab requires students to construct nine leg muscles on their skeleton, which is enough to cement the ideas of origin, insertion, and action (Figure 1). It also teaches the concepts of antagonistic muscles (muscles that work in opposition to each other). Although we focused on the muscles of the leg, there is no reason the activity could not be extended to other skeletal muscles such as those of the shoulder and arm.

The muscle-construction activity takes one, two-hour class period to complete (see clarification on time under "Background information"). Materials needed include: one skeleton for each group, nylon stockings, several types of tape (e.g., masking or painter's, duct, double-sided, cellophane, electrician's, and lab tape), and scissors. (Note: This lab works equally well with full-sized or small articulated skeletons. Each group of four to six students works with one full-sized skeleton. Smaller group sizes are preferred when smaller skeletons are used.)

Early in the year, students use skeletons to learn about bones; reusing these skeletons reinforces the integral relationship between the skeletal and muscular systems. Nylon stockings have the muscle characteristic of elasticity, are inexpensive, and can be reused. Students use tape to attach the nylon muscles to the skeletons.

Background information

Several days before the lab, to introduce students to leg muscle anatomy and terms, we provide students with a prelab worksheet (Figure 1). Using their textbooks or other sources, such as the internet, students fill in information on muscle origins, insertions, and actions, and define terms associated with muscle movement. Doing research to complete this worksheet ensures students have the basic vocabulary needed to participate in the lab.

During the lab, students have access to the freely available "Get Body Smart" website ( This interactive medium provides details helpful to the construction of muscle models, such as muscle origin, insertion, action, and animated movement. On the website, the origin and insertion of each muscle are clearly described and shown in relation to bone. …

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