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The Other Teachers in the Classroom: Human Cadavers

The Other Teachers in the Classroom: Human Cadavers

Students in Professor of Biology Tim Shaw’s Gross Human Anatomy course, Interim 2018.

“There’s memory of a whole life in your hands—if you could just read it,” says Professor of Biology Tim Shaw, holding out his empty hands, cupped as though they were containing something fragile. Shaw’s on a brief break between twice-daily lab sessions with his interim Gross Human Anatomy class, and he’s describing the profound experience of holding a human brain—something each student in his class experiences.

“When we started, almost nobody else did this at the undergraduate level,” says Shaw, who started teaching part time at Bethel as a graduate student in 1981 and helped bring the first human cadaver to campus soon afterwards. With memories of his first human dissection experience top of mind, he dissected Bethel’s first cadavers to be viewed in the laboratory as a way of better illustrating the concepts covered in his students’ textbooks. At the time, the experience was designed to give students an advantage over most undergraduate anatomy courses where students dissect cats or dogs, and that advantage still occurs for students today.

On the whole, human cadaver programs are expensive—and mean added regulations, security, and building standards—but to Shaw, there’s simply no better way for biologists and budding healthcare professionals to learn the inner workings of the human body. Plus, with Bethel’s commitment to faith, he knew that the ethical and existential conversations that might come along with such a program would be all the more meaningful.

Today, Gross Human Anatomy is a 400-level elective course for undergraduate students—with 12–15 students taking it each interim—and in the summer, 32 physician assistant students take an intensive 10-week course in gross anatomy. In addition, about 200 undergraduate students view student dissections in 200-level anatomy courses each year.

Shaw anticipates varied reactions to seeing a deceased body, so a significant part of the course is preparation. He has his students view a video and talk about what to expect and how the cadaver donation process works. He wants students to know exactly how and why they’ve come to have this opportunity. Shaw says the experience is intentionally much different than what he remembers experiencing during his human dissection in graduate school, which he admits was a bit traumatic.

“I tell students, ‘The donors of these bodies are here because they have chosen to be. This is a shell that someone once occupied—but they’re gone, and they left their body so you could learn,’” says Shaw. “There’s no disrespect in the classroom. We realize this is a huge gift these donors have given us.”

By the time undergraduate students are considering a course in gross anatomy, they are juniors and seniors in nursing, biology, athletic training, or biokinetics and have had a course in human anatomy as well as other advanced lab courses. They’ve covered every system in the body, learning vocabulary and being exposed to photos of healthy and ill organs. “But seeing it all come together, physically, spatially—it’s like they’re learning it in a totally new way, in a way that they really remember,” explains Shaw. “Students say, ‘Oh, I get it! I see how this all fits together now.’”

Students get a rough medical history of their assigned cadaver before they begin, but very few specific details. Shaw notes that little has changed about the mechanics of dissection since he’s been in the field, although now students have greater access to biological images online, so they can more easily compare what they’re seeing to a body with or without a specific condition.

“In general, when students take this class, they begin to look at people a little differently—to appreciate the human body and creation more,” Shaw says. With that in mind, Associate Professor of Biology Paula Soneral got the idea of researching the educational and emotional experiences of gross anatomy students. Shaw, Soneral, and Associate Professor of Biology Sara Wyse have collected impressions from undergraduate and graduate students who have taken the class, studying the educational theory behind this type of hands-on learning. They have surveyed undergraduate and physician assistant students over three years, presenting their findings to the Society for the Advancement of Biological Educational Research (SABER).

“For many students in our undergraduate programs, the gross human anatomy course provides their first patient contact and exposure to death and dying,” Soneral says. “Although students make significant cognitive learning gains in this course—related to structure and function of the human body—they are also processing information at a spiritual and emotional level. For example, our students often feel honored that families would entrust them with a loved one's body. In other cases, students must process some of their own grief first in order to learn the anatomy. Such affective and cognitive experiences, framed in the respectful environment of a Christian community, helps students make sense of these multiple layers of learning. Students leave the course with a strengthened desire to pursue patient care in the future.”

Physician Assistant student Anmol Clairmont GS’18 found the course profound, especially on her path to healthcare. “I found myself pondering the wonder that courses through every cell of our bodies allowing us to feel emotion, remember experiences, move our bodies, see, touch, smell, or think a thought. Gross anatomy is one of the most practical and foundational classes a medical student can take, because it provides a rare glimpse into the bodies that we are learning to treat,” says Clairmont. “It helped me respect the complexity of the body and look at a disease from the perspective of what’s going on from inside the body. Dr. Shaw did an amazing job teaching anatomy, allowing us to discover, ask questions, and learn as much as we wanted. We’re miracles in action, every one of us, and little do we realize it.”

The human cadavers for medical schools and in-state scientific settings like Bethel’s are supplied by the Anatomy Bequest Program at the University of Minnesota.

Learn more about Bethel’s Department of Biological Sciences and healthcare programs.