In Search of the Core Principles of Human Anatomy

A message from HAPS Central Regional Director, Murray Jensen.
A message from HAPS Central Regional Director, Murray Jensen.

HAPSters spend a lot of time discussing the teaching and learning of anatomy and physiology.  Check out this post from long time HAPSter and Central Regional Director, Murray Jensen.  Murray is trying to generate a bit of controversy about teaching anatomy and long hot lists that we require our students to memorize.  Just how important are all those names and structures?  Look forward to a retort from graduate student Bradley Barger next week.

After 25 years of teaching entry-level anatomy and physiology, I can safely say that I’ve begun to figure a few things out – like the importance of setting high expectations on the first day of class; you have to scare the kids a bit.  All HAPSters know that one.  Another thing I’ve begun to figure out is how to teach human physiology.  This is in large part due to the work of Joel Michael and his group who identified the core principals of physiology  (    Energy flow, homeostasis, and a few other concepts set the stage for pretty much every topic in physiology.   I use Michael’s core principals to design my course, write curriculum, generate exam questions, etc.  It’s a powerful tool for those of us who teach entry-level physiology. Required Structures ListI also teach basic human anatomy, and after 25 years and a couple thousand students, I can say with confidence that I really don’t know what I’m doing.  I remember vividly the first human A & P course I taught.  Skeletal system .. skull anatomy…hmmm…what structures should be on the hot list?  Ethmoid? Of course. Sphenoid? Obviously.  How about the foramen spinosum?  Should that be on the list? To facilitate the decision process I used Rule One of Teaching – you teach the way you’ve been taught.  In deciding what structures to include on my own hot list, I simply went back to the notes I used as a student, “What did Dr. Ivan Johnson make me learn?” Turns out Dr. Johnson indeed had me learn the foramen spinosum; therefore it must be important, and so it went on my very first hot list for skull anatomy.   Twenty-five years later I still have my students learn the foramen spinosum.  Why?  The best I can do is “because I had to do it!” Blindly following Rule One is not professional.  I would like to do better.  Joel Michael’s core principles greatly improved my ability to teach physiology – his work established an epistemological foundation for physiology education.  Now when a student asks “why do we have to learn about vasopressin?” I can confidently answer that it fits into the bigger picture of how the body works, and vasopressin’s role in the homeostasis of sodium, water, and blood pressure.  Much, much more satisfying than responding, “Well…I had to learn it!” or even worse “Because it will be on the exam.” In the past few years I’ve been pushing my anatomy colleagues for answers.  What should kids learn about anatomy in my entry-level course? What should they learn first?  If a student wants a career in anatomy, what are the themes? What’s at the foundation of a conceptual understanding of human anatomy?  We’ve had some good beginning ideas: orientation, cavities, medical terminology, liquids and solids, layers have promise.  But there is nothing official at this stage – just some good conversations.  And nothing that helps me figure out if I should include the foramen spinosum on the hot list. Identifying the core principles of anatomy is a worthy quest, and HAPS leadership is looking into starting a task force to get things moving.  I’ve been working with Bradley Barger, PhD candidate in Anatomy and Cell Biology at Indiana University, and we’ll be hosting a workshop at San Antonio for others interested in the project. In pondering the task ahead, I think I’ve identified a significant question, but some background is needed first.  Dr. Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winning physicist from way back, has a quote, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” I think Rutherford is correct – everything in science boils down to physics.  When teaching human physiology and thinking about Michael’s core principals, I see physics (e.g., diffusion, pumps, gradients, barriers, energy).  If students can comprehend some basic physics, then they can make some good strides toward understanding human physiology. My big question: Is there any physics in anatomy?   At this time I don’t see any physics.  I see terminology, orientation, embryology, and sometimes even design (gasp!) – but I don’t see physics. Disagree?  Disagree strongly? Well…make a list of your own core principles of human anatomy and come to the workshop in San Antonio.  Help me figure out if I should keep the foramen spinosum on my hot list.

The HAPS Foundation…What’s that all about?

A message from Bob Crocker, co-chair of the HAPS Foundation Oversight Committee.
A message from Bob Crocker, co-chair of the HAPS Foundation Oversight Committee.

Many HAPS members, especially those who have recently joined, aren’t aware of what the HAPS Foundation is or the various grants, scholarships, and awards funded through the Foundation and its scholarship partners. We thought it would be a good idea to write a few blogs to insure all HAPS members know what benefits are available to them. This first Foundation blog will provide the big picture. Following blogs will concentrate on the grants, scholarships, and awards in more detail.

In 2009, the HAPS membership voted to establish a Foundation, whose purpose would be to generate funds to be used to provide grants, scholarships, and awards to deserving HAPS members. These awards would support attendance at the annual conferences, provide tuition for HAPS Institute courses, and encourage scholarly activities in our members. A Foundation Oversight Committee was also formed. At the time, there was a separate Grants and Scholarships committee. Subsequently, these two committees were combined to form the current Foundation Oversight Committee.

Since its inception, the Foundation, along with its sponsoring scholarship partners, has funded dozens of awards and accumulated over $50,000 in Foundation endowment capital. Our goal is to grow the endowment to $100,000. To that end, the HAPS Board has committed to funding $5,000 in annual awards going forward to enable all donations to the Foundation to augment the endowment capital.

In this fiscal year, that $5,000 HAPS donation, along with funding from our scholarship partners AD Instruments, Primal Pictures, and Thieme Publishers has made it possible to grant in excess of $10,000 to HAPS members through the following scholarships and awards:

  • HAPS-I scholarships
  • Robert Anthony Faculty Scholarship(s)
  • Adjunct Faculty Scholarship(s)
  • Faculty Grant Award(s)
  • Student Grant Award(s)
  • Graduate Travel Award(s)
  • Sam Drogo Technology Award(s) (funds provided by AD Instruments)
  • Thieme Excellence in Teaching Award (funds provided by Thieme Publishers)
  • Primal Pictures Scholarship (funds provided by Primal Pictures)

To read more about these scholarship and award programs, visit the grants webpage.

Our next Foundation blog will tell you more about each scholarship and how you, as a HAPS member, can apply for them.

Our endowment grows solely through the contributions of our members. Please consider making an online donation. Donations of any amount are welcome- we can all make a difference!

Bob Crocker and Don Kelly, Foundation Oversight Committee Co-chairs

HAPS + Education

I’m at that point in the semester when I really have to start planning for the next terms – both summer and fall – and that makes me dream big at the same time I’m addressing minutiae.  Can I develop the summer test schedule at the same time I’m designing new assignments that will spur deeper learning? Why, yes – yes, I can. In fact, if I don’t start it now, I wont’ have time to get the long-range plans accomplished.  I have to analyze now, while it’s still fresh,what doesn’t seem to be working in this semester’s initiatives, and tweak, or throw out and reinvent, for the brief summer term as well as the new students in the fall.  My first step is to survey this semester’s students to see what resonated with them and what fell flat.  They seem to appreciate videos more than text, and interactive assignments more than straight reading.  Of course, those types of assignments take more time to develop, and I’m constantly looking for inspiration – a new angle, or a new application – along with new technology to record, post, and assess online lessons.

I’ve perused the new edition of the HAPS Educator – a very fine online journal with a variety of articles produced to help us as educators and as science enthusiasts. I’m particularly impressed with examples of HAPS members sharing their tips with their colleagues.  I’ve also attended presentations given by HAPS members at our regional and national meetings, and I always get good ideas, not only from what they present, but also by how they present it.  I’m pondering how we can leverage that into a shared resource, something that we can all tap into when we feel tapped out.

So, I’m looking forward to the HAPS annual meeting in San Antonio at the end of May. We’ll not only get insight into educational research from recognized experts, but also those teaching tips that just smooth our presentations and get our students in the zone.  We’ll experience that electrifying synergy that energizes us all the way home.  We’ll gain lasting resources that will enrich our classes and satisfy our creative sides.  We might even find out what amazing app/software/website is the secret to our students’ success.  I hope to see you there!

The HAPS EDucator Spring 2015 Edition is Here!

A message from the ComCom
A message from the ComCom

The HAPS-EDucator for Spring 2015 is HERE. This members-only perk is available if you log into the HAPS website to view the newest edition.

Articles in this edition include:

Marvels of the Bologna Anatomical Wax Museum: their theoretical and clinical importance in the training of 21st century medical students
By Francesco M. Galassi, Alessandro Ruggeri, Kevin Petti, hutan Ashrafian

A Functional MRI (fMRI) Study Showing Neuroanatomical Correlates of

HAPS-EDucator is the official publication of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS) and is published online three times per year on April 15, August 15, and December 15.

Medical Image Interpretation and Effects of Art Instruction on Visuo-spatial skills in Medical Education
By Elliot Dickerson BS, Caryn Babaian, MC, Med, Kim Curby, PhD, Beverley Hershey, MD, Scott H. Faro, MD, Feroze B. Mohamed, PhD

The Anatomical Landmarks Most Important for Dental Implant Surgery
By Sarah Cooper

Anastomosis: Connecting History and Anatomy Education
By Vinson H. Sutlive

Indentification of Unknown Mammalian Quadruped Bones by Histological Techniques And Bone Morphology
By Olena Prikhodko, Sarah Cooper, and Jennifer Wood, PhD

The Nerve of it All: The BRachial Plexus in 3D. A Workshop Presentation at Central Regional Conference in Cincinnati
By Christine Yu

A Summary of the HAPS Regional Conference in Cincinnati
By Bonnie Richmond, PhD

A message from HAPS President-Elect, Betsy Ott.

Living Science

In Texas, the new state guidelines for teaching A&P at the college level include teaching scientific methods and experimental methods.  While I’m sure most of us cover something about the ways of science, I know at my campus we will be expanding our coverage of the experimental methods used by scientists.  This expansion will include experimental activities in lab, but I also intend to introduce examples of current science research in my lectures.  In line with my desire to make course material more personal to my students, I’ve been looking for relevant case studies that showcase the ways of science as well as teaching human physiology.  I think I’ve found what I need…

I’ve been watching “Cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies” this week on PBS.  It’s a riveting mix of historical accounts and vignettes of recent interviews and profiles of cases.  For example, the history of tobacco use, lung cancer, and the politics of marketing are highlighted in more than one episode.  A brief overview of DNA and cell division help clarify the reasons that mutagens are linked to cancer.

I find it particularly insightful in hearing about the investigations into how cancer was treated a generation or two ago.  Assumptions, such as that cancer spread locally (the reason for radical mastectomies), were so entrenched that anyone challenging that paradigm was professionally ostracized.  The clear lesson in adhering to the methods of science stands out in these stories.  The dedication of those scientists who pushed past the dogma to look for other explanations is inspiring. At around the same time, the shift in patient treatment from killing cancer to palliative care gave everyone a different perspective – not only medical personnel, but also the public at large.

Today’s research initiatives, particularly in how to analyze cancer genomes, are mind-boggling.  The cancer genome atlas has revealed a huge number of mutated genes, revealing that not only oncogenes, but also tumor suppressor genes, can mutate and lead to the development of cancer. It’s particularly satisfying to hear renowned scientists explain complicated information with wonderful clarity.  The computer-generated 3-D animations of molecules developed to fight cancer are incredible.  And, while the realization that cancer cells continually mutate, making treatment continually difficult, is hard to accept, at least we continue to add to our knowledge of cellular mechanisms.

Many of the questions raised certainly go beyond basic and applied science, addressing issues of access to, and cost of treatment, and political aspects of research and regulation of carcinogens.  I can send my students to see the episodes for themselves to get the full story, and I’m betting they will be as entranced as I have been.

As with many other fine productions on PBS, there are educator resources available on the website (at These include online activities and additional resources.  I hope you’ll enjoy these as much as I plan to.