Anatomy in Action
Students get to the heart of the matter in this science lab.
When Ashleigh Facey ’24 entered her anatomy classroom and saw six pig hearts laid out on the lab tables, she wasn’t certain she’d make it through the class. “I’d been a little nervous since I first learned that we’d be doing the dissection,” she said. “When I entered the room, I could actually smell the hearts. At first I was afraid I might even be sick!” But armed with a foundational understanding of the heart’s anatomy from her study of the cardiovascular system (and with a quick dab of Vicks Vaporub under her nose to combat the smell!) Ashleigh rose to the challenge.
Students began the procedure by identifying the right and left sides of the heart and observing the interventricular sulcus — a diagonal line of blood vessels that divides the heart. They continued to explore the organ’s external anatomy, locating the aorta, superior and inferior vena cava, and other external structures, before making their first incision.
The dissection was not without its challenges. “Identifying vessels initially proved to be a difficult task for some,” says Science Teacher Maegan Windus. “Many students had trouble finding the entrance or exit to specific vessels when observing the heart from the outside,” she said. But after making their initial cut, which allowed them to view the organ from the inside, students were able to identify each chamber and locate the entry and exit points.
Some hearts presented an additional hurdle with fatty tissue obstructing the view, but students quickly adapted, cutting away tissue to isolate the vessels. As the dissection progressed, initial trepidation gave way to a sense of discovery and accomplishment. “I could hear students saying with excitement, ‘Oh, that’s the right atrium,’ or ‘there’s the tricuspid valve’ as they identified structures they’d previously encountered only in models,” said Windus.
The decision to incorporate pig heart dissection into the curriculum was driven by the striking resemblance between pig and human hearts; the pig heart is very similar to the human heart. Additionally, rather than using hearts that had been chemically preserved — a process that can alter the organ’s texture and appearance — Windus opted for fresh frozen hearts that more closely mimic the state of tissue as it is found in the body. This emphasis on fresh tissue was pivotal in ensuring that students could recognize and identify the intricate structures within the heart.
“Although I was nervous at first, my lab partner really helped me overcome my fears,” says Ashleigh. “After he made the first cut and I could actually see inside the heart, I became more interested in finding the different structures we’d studied. It was interesting and so different to see inside a real heart versus a model.”
Windus couldn’t agree more. “While there’s no doubt that models and images on a screen are helpful tools in the classroom, nothing can replicate the experience of an actual hands-on dissection to reinforce students’ understanding,” she says. “This was our first dissection of an entire organ, and I was really impressed with how well the students — even those who started off a little squeamish — handled the activity.” Along with many of her students, Windus is looking forward to a sheep brain dissection coming up in the winter term.