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Teaching Human Anatomy with Care and Respect

The college’s cadaver lab provides memorable learning environment for students across the University
8 June 2022

About a thousand students each year pass through the sixth floor of Mueller Lab. Nestled among biology labs and study spaces, one lab in particular provides students with a unique opportunity to study the human body—the cadaver lab.

“The cadaver lab allows us explore human anatomy in a very detailed, thoughtful way,” said John Waters, teaching professor of biology and anthropology and associate head of biology undergraduate education. “The hands-on aspect—wearing the long gloves and aprons and actually touching the organs—provides such a strong and memorable experience that is difficult to recreate. There is something special about actually working with a human donor.”

The cadaver lab is particularly useful for demonstrating links between structures within the human body and their function, as well as how these structures work together to create a living organism. And, according to Waters, there is beauty in seeing how all the tissues and organs are contained in a small package.

“Theater students don’t learn to be actors and actresses in lecture; they learn on stage. In science, our students don’t learn to be scientists in lecture; they learn in the lab,” said Waters. “The cadaver lab is just one of the laboratory experiences available to students in the Eberly College of Science, but it’s one that I think everybody values.”

Squires and two students, all wearing aprons and gloves, look at donor
Associate Teaching Professor of Biology Nicole Squyres (center) points out a structure to students. Credit: John Waters

The lab was built in 2015 with support from the Eberly College of Science and the Department of Biology, and soon thereafter Associate Teaching Professor of Biology Nicole Squyres led the development of a brand new curriculum to take advantage of the lab. These courses serve students across the University, including through a 100-level introduction to human anatomy course, a 400-level deeper dive where students are in the lab each week, and a summer course where students learn to dissect a cadaver. Students can even take a 100-level general education course that combines the study of human anatomy with how it is represented in the arts. 

“We want to benefit as many students as possible,” said Waters. “And none of this is possible without the gift of these men and women that agreed to be donors and their families.”

Waters and his colleagues intentionally work to build a culture of respect in the cadaver lab, starting on the day that the four donors arrive from the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. The donors arrive only with an identification number and year of birth. One of the first steps, according to Waters, is to provide a first name for each of the donors, selected based on the most common baby names in their respective birth years.

“We don’t want the students to view the donors as bodies or specimens,” he said. “We don’t want them to be viewed as something to be frightened of or repulsed by. We want the students to form a human connection with the donors, and by extension with the donors’ families. And the students really take that to heart. You can see it in the way students interact with the donors throughout the semester. That respect and care becomes part of the fabric of the course.”

two students wearing aprons and gloves in the lab
Students in the cadaver lab make connections between structures in the human body and their function. Credit: John Waters

After a full year of instruction is complete, the donors are returned to the Hershey Medical Center for cremation and subsequent return to their families.

“We tell our students that there are five teachers in the room, and they will learn more anatomy from the four teachers that are on the tables than they will from the instructors,” said Waters.

In addition to formal courses, Waters and his colleagues hold outreach events for staff in the college and even participate in a formal outreach event for high school students.

“We try to demystify the cadaver lab to the larger community that we work with and whose support we rely upon,” said Waters. “I feel that making these experiences available to as large a population as possible is the best way to honor the gift of the donors and their families. It’s a very special gift. It’s not one that we have earned. It’s not one that we are owed. But it’s one that we appreciate very, very much.”