A group of College of Southern Maryland (CSM) Anatomy and Physiology students gather around a table and look down at a real human body. The instructor reaches out and removes the person’s skin with a single touch, exposing their muscles, organs, and skeleton. Next, the class focuses on the heart. A few finger taps later, the instructor highlights and names the veins and arteries that comprise the circulatory system.  

Credit: College of Southern Maryland

No, the instructor isn’t a magician. Instead, they’re using CSM’s new virtual dissection table as a teaching tool to give students a tour through a real human body. The table, and the software it runs, have revolutionized and modernized the way students learn since the technology hit the market in 2018.

“The dissector has been such a fabulous tool for our students and teachers, providing them with an interactive experience as they explore the material they’re learning in class,” said Melanie Osterhouse, professor of biology.

The dissection table itself is essentially a four-foot-long computer tablet, called a Sectra Table, which runs a program called VH Dissector. The program allows students to explore, study and dissect (and reassemble, and re-dissect) the body of a real person whose remains were donated to science. As the students explore the body, they encounter each body’s uniqueness as they would encounter in real life: The body could be tattooed, muscular, or missing a body part (the program can also display male and female reproductive systems).

Each of CSM’s three campuses has a Sectra Table, and the VH Dissector program can also be accessed from students’ personal devices. Students’ lab fees cover subscriptions to the program during their first semester of Anatomy and Physiology, and they retain access to the program for as long as they are students at CSM, allowing them to use it as a study tool as they move through their classes.

“VH dissector helped a lot in class,” said CSM nursing student Nicolas Carter. “Diagrams in the book are nice, but they are generally images from a single perspective. With a VH dissector, you can examine body parts from any angle and see their attachments. For me, the best part of the VH dissector is being able to follow nerves and capillaries. Following and tracking the circulatory pathways with the highlighter made blood tracing a cakewalk.” 

The software proved to be instrumental during the pandemic when students were learning from home.

“During the pandemic, we were able to replicate online what we would have been doing in person,” said Osterhouse, adding that students typically prefer the dissection software. “It is a human anatomy class, after all,” she said, pointing out that students get hands-on experience with real tissue through dissection of other body parts, such as a cow’s eye, in class.

The software will continue to be helpful as the college continues offering hybrid courses. Using the software, rather than needing to dissect physical specimens in the lab, will allow students to complete more of their work at home and free up classroom time for more instruction.

Using the VH Dissector software has other advantages, most notably that it has made Anatomy and Physiology classes more accessible to students with unique needs. For example, the table can be raised, lowered, and tilted to enable the best possible views for students who use wheelchairs. Tests and quizzes are easier to standardize across students’ differing learning needs or proctor outside of normal classroom hours with the software. CSM enlisted the help of their students with disabilities to customize the software to make it workable for as many students as possible.

Finally, utilizing this software will leave students well-prepared for the next step in their education: many colleges, universities, and even medical schools have adopted similar software for their students.

Funding for this technology was provided by the CSM Foundation, the fundraising arm of the college. The Foundation has awarded nearly $7 million in support of credit and workforce development scholarships and programs at CSM in the past ten years.

“At the CSM Foundation, our goal is to promote academic excellence, growth, and progress,” said CSM Foundation Executive Director Chelsea Clute. “When we received the request for the dissection table, we knew it was a great fit for our mission because it helps our students in the classroom, increases access to knowledge, and leaves our students well prepared for their next step. Plus, it’s just really cool!”

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