Imagine being able to see every fused bone of the human skull, grouped by color and mass, and rotating in three dimensions on your video iPod, just hours before seeing the real thing in the gross-anatomy lab. It may sound like a new Xbox game, but Drs. Shelley Metten and Jonathan Wisco are making it a reality in the new anatomy integrative-design center - a cross between a NASA control room and a spiffed-up video arcade.
"We've been working on the bones for about a year," Dr. Metten says proudly. In the center of the room, a large LCD screen beams out an amazingly lifelike replication of a human skeleton. "After we finish, we'll add the ligaments, and be able to show disc herniations in a progression," she continues. "We can then take that to a histology level or a clinical level, which is just so cool." Cool is an understatement. The new computerized study includes click-on Latin origins, anatomic radiographs and interactive moveable pieces, modeled from scratch for UCLA's unique curriculum.
Dr. Metten arrived at UCLA (for the second time) in 2001, at a time when anatomy had been folded into the pathology and laboratory-medicine department, and clinical relevancy was the focus. "When I became director of the Division of Anatomy in 2005, the greatest challenge was to make the much-reduced anatomy curriculum more tech-friendly," she says. To do that, Dr. Metten, with the help of a very forward-thinking Department of Pathology chair, Dr. Jonathan Braun, built upon the work of faculty members like Dr. Joseph Miller, who created internal "hyperlinks" in his PowerPoint lectures that would provide anatomy students with an interactive, "Web page"-like experience. "I wanted to provide something different than just clicking on slides from beginning to end like a photographic slide show," notes Dr. Miller, who chairs the gross-anatomy course for first-year dental students. "The hyperlinks allowed me to set up fl ash-card experiences, and link to optional and enriching information that the students choose to follow as they like, just like navigating in and out of Web pages on the Internet."
Even with advanced teaching tools like the kind Dr. Miller created, Dr. Metten still had to reorganize the program's budget, hire professional animators and then, somehow, fold the new 3-D materials into the lab experience." Dr. Wisco, who was hired as an anatomist who could help integrate the new digital curricula, helped assemble portable stand-up computers (dubbed "robots") that students would work with interactively in the lab. "One advantage to using digital media," Dr. Wisco notes, "is the ease with which it can be changed to incorporate new ideas and technologies. The Flash software platform we use has a steep learning curve but it's very powerful and fl exible."
Dr. Wisco cites one directive file that asked students to compare a CT scan of a cross section of the thorax (through the heart) with the atlas picture of the same view. "Both the radiograph and the figure were labeled by our animation team for specific structures," he elaborates. "Students were able to click on buttons that showed and hid the labels. Then, we directed the students to find the cross-sectional level shown in the radiograph and figure on the cadaver and palpate the structures."
Though such technological advances have opened up a world of new possibilities for instruction, dissection still remains at the heart of anatomy. "The technology enables the student to have a better understanding of the basic fl oor plan," says Dr. Metten. "But the exploration of the cadaver will always be the most essential piece in the learning process. You still need to get your hands involved and be able to touch a nerve and explore the pancreas nestled within the bend of the duodenum for it to be forever embedded in your mind." - David Geffner