3D app helps students learn anatomy from the outside in

14445634744_816f9db8b2_zDr. Janet Cope and Dr. Cindy Bennett were looking for a way to incorporate a 3D application into anatomy classes in the Doctor of Physical Therapy and Master of Physician Assistant Studies programs. When Dr. Cope heard about the grants from the Academic Technology and Computing Committee (ATACC), she jumped on the opportunity to give a 3D anatomy app a try. With the help of ATACC, they purchased 3D4Medical, which they believed would help their students learn anatomy from the outside in.

3D in the classroom

Students in the anatomy classes had 3D4Medical installed onto the personal device of their choice. The students were asked to use the application in any way they found suitable to their anatomy study habits.

“The app included quizzes on muscles, bones and nerves, which were all covered in our classes,” Dr. Cope said. “Because it was the last three weeks of a seven month long course for the physical therapy (PT) students, we sold it as a good way to review for their cumulative final. A good percentage of them used it.”

The physician assistant (PA) students obtained the app just in time for the musculoskeletal portion of their anatomy training, and found it very useful in isolating individual muscles for study. The app became a bit less useful during reproductive medicine, because reproductive organs were not represented in this version of the program. However, the updated app for 2015 includes reproductive organs for both male and female.

At the end of their respective class, Dr. Cope and Dr. Bennett asked the students to fill out a survey to review the app. According to the results, 88% of students said the use of app improved anatomy knowledge. 73% said the content of the app aligned well with what they learned in the class, and 83% said they would have used it more if it had implemented into the class earlier.

While the class is now over, Dr. Cope has reported students using the same app in additional courses, such as a biomechanics class. Dr. Bennett has observed students continuing to use the app as well, and encourages its use during the clinical phase of PA education.

Applying 3D4Medical outside the classroom

Dr. Cope says she has found the benefits of the 3D4Medical app for students have extended outside the classroom. The students who originally disliked taking the app exams on the smaller screens are now using that same app in clinical practice.

“Some students hated the app on their phone, because the screen was too small,” Dr. Cope said. “Those same people are using the app now in clinical practice because it is always with them. It’s readily available and easy to use to show patients 3D images of the region their working on.”

Dr. Cope encourages this use of the app, because she believes it can help with their patient education and instructions related to home exercise programs.

“The app can be the best way to start a conversation with a patient,” Dr. Cope said. “People in health care are required to be competent in apps for all sorts of things. That drove this [experiment with 3D4Medical]. We wanted to give our physical therapy and physician’s assistant students experience with apps.”

Dr. Bennett’s students also saw the utility of 3D4Medical in the clinical setting. She now is working with a second year PA student on a study assessing the utility of the app in the surgical and emergency room settings. The app has great potential for use by students prepping for procedures and surgeries, and as the PT students have found, when the app is on one’s phone it is always available.

MORE: Read how other Elon faculty are using ATACC grants

Grant considerations

Giving each student the app on his or her choice device took more time than Dr. Cope realized. By the time all her students received a copy of the application, there were only three weeks left in the course, which made a few students hesitant to incorporate the app into their study habits.

“Technically, it seems simple to give every student access to an app, but we gave it to them on their chosen personal devices,” Dr. Cope said. “We realized that students wanted the app for their iPhone, iPad, Macs and PCs. There were different versions we had to acquire. It took two months to get the apps set up and working for everyone.”

Dr. Cope says that if she were to do it again, she would make sure to get the app as soon as possible, so her students would have more time to adjust to it and use it alongside their in-class learning.

The importance of learning from 3D

Overall, Dr. Cope thinks the incorporation of 3D4Medical into her anatomy classes was a positive choice. Though their experience with the app was limited, the students have been exposed to something that literally brings their learning off of the page.

“I think it’s a cool way for students to interact with the human anatomy content,” Dr. Cope said. “A one-dimensional image doesn’t match what you learn when you dissect a human body. If you look at a flat picture, it’s challenging to understand relationships and depths, which is why I have an appreciation of the three-dimensional images. It can be a great additional resource.”

Dr. Cope believes understanding anatomy on sight is crucial to her students and that 3D apps like 3D4Medical help them develop that sight.

“A PT student should be able to look at a person and see their anatomy from the outside in,” Dr. Cope said. “Being able to watch somebody move and pick up movement issues is an essential skill, a 3D skill. It makes sense to introduce students to 3D learning tools early in their studies.”

Dr. Bennett found the app to be very useful, especially when studying three-dimensional relationships that are difficult to dissect in the anatomy lab. Some of her students found the ability to isolate a muscle or organ quite helpful to their studying. She has encouraged her more visual first-year students to consider adding the app to their anatomy studying plan.

To learn more about applying for an ATACC grant, visit ATACC’s website.

Image via Flickr user NEC-Medical-137 / CC BY 2.0

Casey Brown

Casey Brown

Casey Brown is the Writing Intern for Technology with Elon University's Teaching and Learning Technologies Department.

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