Virtual Reality: BIOL-317 Human Anatomy

Lisa Olson

Lisa OlsonDr. Lisa Olson has a Ph.D. in human genetics from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a B.S. from Baylor University. At Johns Hopkins, her Ph.D. program included the first two years of medical school. Her teaching includes medical genetics and neuroscience. She is a pre-health advisor and has served on the Academic Review Board, Writing Advisory Committee and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Dr. Olson's main academic interests are physiology and human genetic disorders. She has been published in journals such as Science, Cancer Research,Human Molecular Genetics, and featured on the podcast, Faith Without Fear.

Project Summary

Anatomy concerns the physical form and internal structure of tissues and organs of the body. The form and structure of an organ have evolved to perform a particular function in the context of an organ system and the other organs of the body. For example, in my Human Anatomy class we study each limb as a unit: the bones, joints, muscles, networks, and blood vessels—and more importantly, their spatial relationships to each other, which are linked to their functional interactions; for example, how the structure of the network of blood vessels enables it to deliver blood to the various muscles of a limb. It is difficult to grasp the three-dimensional form of an organ and its spatial relationships with other organs from a two-dimensional figure. I have found that students that have studied 2-D figures exclusively often have difficulty identifying features on a 3-D model.

To encourage my students to develop a 3-D concept of anatomy, I already use anatomical models and dissection of preserved animals in the laboratory. I also promote kinesthetic learning by (1) having students perform movements employing different muscles in the Fitness Center (using their own bodies as live specimens to study) and relating the muscles to the bones, joints, nerves, and blood supply; and (2) a “What’s in the box?” lab activity in which students identify a bone and specific features of the bone by touch alone.

A trend in teaching anatomy is away from cadaver study to the use of interactive computer software and virtual reality. Although I think there is great benefit from cadaver study—examining the actual organs—we do not currently use human cadavers at the University of Redlands. Virtual reality and 3-D printing applications should be valuable additions to the Human Anatomy course.

My BIOL 317 Human Anatomy course is next offered in Fall 2020. I will complete all the tasks, design, and build out the VR project modules etc. by June 2020, and then teach the class in Fall 2020; then report my findings at the Faculty Technology Showcase in Fall 2020. My intent is to use is to use:

  1. Mobile VR kits (including VR goggles, cell phones, and anatomy software for the devices) for each student in the class (to be implemented in Fall 2020), and…
  2. Have Organon VR Anatomy available in the existing VR lab (2 stations) to develop the modules in Spring/Summer 2020 and for students to use outside of class in Fall 2020 and subsequently. (The quality of the computer version and hardware is better than the cell phone app.) Since the current project must be completed by June 2020, I will use Spring/Summer Term and grant funding to develop VR project modules for use in my anatomy classes, as described below, then implement these in my Human Anatomy class in Fall 2020.

The project will be largely student-driven. I will collaborate with a few students on the project (probably as an Independent Study project). I will ask students that are currently taking Human Anatomy (several students have already expressed interest). I want to give the students some freedom in developing the learning modules, with my guidance, so I cannot give a detailed timeline for the project, but planning and development phase will be completed by June 2020. At various stages of the project, we will test the modules that we develop using student volunteers (students that have already taken Human Anatomy and those that have not—so responses from students that familiar with anatomy and from those that are not).

Virtual Reality

As stated above, the next offering of my Human Anatomy class is Fall 2020. The current project for Spring 2020 will work with a few selected students to develop VR projects for use in my Human Anatomy class. I will use the two existing computer VR stations in Makerspace for the project. I am requesting funding for the computer software (Organon VR Anatomy) and two game controllers (as advised by Iyan Sandri). The library has some free (but elementary) VR anatomy software, but the Organon VR Anatomy system is more detailed and appropriate for Human Anatomy class. The Organon VR Anatomy program enables the user to pull out an individual organ to study its overall form, open them up to observe its internal structure, and then put it back into the body to see spatial relationships with other organs.

The purpose of the current project is to develop the details of the applications/modules for using VR for anatomy class, but here are two examples of questions that we will address:

  1. Digestive system: How is the gross anatomy of an organ (outside and inside) adapted to its specific digestive function? For examples, the esophagus, transports food from mouth to the stomach; the stomach mixes food with digestive substances; the small intestine digests and absorbs nutrient; and the large intestine stores feces and absorbs water. Their form and structure should facilitate these functions.
  2. Physical networks: The nerves, blood vessels, and lymphatic vessels form complex networks related to each other. The VR Anatomy program allows students to visualize a single system, blood vessels for example, and then combine the image with images from neural and/or lymphatic systems to study the spatial relationships. For example, a common feature is a nerve, an artery, and a vein all running together: To what extent is this true? Are there locations in the body where this nerve-artery-vein triad is more common than other? If so, what do these locations have in common?
  3. Guided tours: I foresee eventually using VR in the classroom, with individual mobile kits for each student. How can this best be accomplished? More specifically, how can the instructor give “guided tours” of the body, for example by taking the class through the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to and the foot and back to the heart and explaining along the way? The project students and I will collaborate on developing the best approaches and procedures for instructor-led and student-led tours: To what extent can individual students in the class present a report in class by conducting a guided tour?

The Organon VR Anatomy and existing computer stations will serve to develop virtual reality modules for Human Anatomy in the current project and, when it is implemented in class in the future, for students to work on modules and projects out of class time. I am also requesting funding for a class set of mobile kits (one mobile kit per student, including goggles, cell phones, and software for the devices) to be used in class in Fall 2020. The image quality of the mobile app is not as good as the Organon computer program, so while developing learning modules, we will consider how the modules we develop on Organon VR Anatomy will work with the mobile systems and software.

3-D Printing

This is a minor component of the project, so I am only requesting funding for a filament for the existing 3-D printers in Makerspace. Project students and I will investigate and develop the use of 3-D printing for learning anatomy as an adjunct to the virtual reality program. Programs for 3-D printing organs are available. These should be sufficient to determine if and how 3-D models can be used effectively in learning anatomy. A benefit of 3-D models is that students can interact physically with the form of organs, although the models will generally be smaller than the actual human organ. Projects that we will explore include (1) having students paint various parts of the models for identification and comparison, and (2) having students compare forms of different organs and relate that to their functions. Ideally, we will be able to link the VR and 3-D printing learning modules.

Expected Student Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will develop a realistic, 3-D concept of organs: their overall form and internal structure.
  2. Students will gain a better understanding of the relationships of form and function: how the form and structure of an organ is adapted to its specific functions.
  3. Students will gain a better understanding of the spatial relationships among organs in an organ system and among different organ systems in the body.