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Anatomy from another perspective
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Engela Duvenage
Published: 31/05/2023

Modelling clay is not an item regularly found on requisition forms of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS). Yet anatomy lecturer Janine Correia nowadays purchases clay for her students to play with while simultaneously learning about the human body.

Anatomy is a crucial subject for the medical profession. It is studied by students varying from prospective doctors and dentists to nurses, physiotherapists, and students from other complementary health professions.

BSc students at Stellenbosch University (SU) can also choose anatomy as a subject. Since 2019 Correia has challenged these students in their third year to build a clay model of a part of the human body in teams of two. They are also allowed to use rope, wool, gauze, or pipe cleaners, as well as other recyclable products in and around their homes, to add more detail and dimensionality to their handiwork.

In this way they learn playfully and with their senses, as well as how to work in groups and to depend on one another. 

This exercise forms part of the larger applied anatomy module preparing students for a possible career in research. It also includes writing a literature review and research reports.

Correia is not the first lecturer to use clay as a medium in the anatomy class. Ever since Irish academics did pioneering work in this regard in 1979, it has been used world-wide.  

However, she is the first researcher who has published a book chapter on the use of modelling clay in the set-up of anatomy studies in South Africa as well as Africa. She was chief author of a chapter on the subject in the 2022 textbook Biomedical Visualisation (part of the publisher Springer Cham's Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology series). Her fellow authors were Prof Karin Baatjes, FMHS Vice Dean: Learning and Teaching and Ilse Meyer, senior researcher at the Centre for Health Professions Education. The work was financed by the Fund for Innovation and Research into Learning and Teaching (FIRLT).  

'Living anatomy' through ultrasound

Thanks to her MPhil studies in health professions education in 2020, Correia added another novelty to the cardiovascular anatomy curriculum of BSc, medical and physiotherapy students: ultrasound equipment. Students are exposed to the use of hand-sized ultrasound devices during one class session.

“When you do an ultrasound on a living person's neck, for example, you can see the artery pulsating. If you press on it hard, you can see how the veins collapse.  We call it 'living anatomy'," says Correia, who is a chosen member of SU's Early Career Academic Development (ECAD) Programme. 

“It adds another element to what the anatomy students are learning when they study a living person, rather than a cadaver. They learn that a specific person's anatomy doesn't always look as 'pretty' on a sonogram as it does in the pictures in their textbooks," explained Correia, who obtained an MMedSc degree in anatomy and cell morphology at the University of the Free State in 2012.

Students also soon realise that good hand-eye coordination is crucial when you have to move the hand device and look at and interpret transections on a screen simultaneously.  

The new techniques that she introduced since she started lecturing at SU in 2018 will not easily trump the value of cadaver dissections, Correia says. That is why she remains grateful that people donate their bodies post mortem for research and studies.

“You can learn an incredible lot from a cadaver. It's so three-dimensional. In a way it's the first patient medical students work on. They are very privileged to be able to do that.

“It's true that not all students enjoy it," she admits. “Many of them are scared, especially initially. However, most research on the topic shows that cadaver dissections are the best way to learn anatomy." 


What do anatomy students have to say about playing with clay? 

  • ​“I learnt while playing actively. I could remember the muscles and their origin, their attachment sites and functions for my presentation and report without looking at my notes again."
  • “I learn more effectively when I can visualise something. Building the clay model increased my knowledge and in-depth understanding. I believe it will also help me to recall this knowledge in future." 
  • “The task helped me to learn anatomy in another, practical way. I realised I enjoy it more than just learning from the textbook." 

​Source: Biomedical Visualisation, Volume 12: The Importance of Context in Image-Making (Springer Cham, 2022), Leonard Shapiro and Paul M. Rea (editors). 

Photo caption: Janine Correia

Photo recognition: Damien Schumann