Dr. Nick Roster uses an array of technologies to enhance content, motivate students, and virtually dissect organs from the comfort of home.
Instructor of Anatomy and Physiology,Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City
PhD in Zoology/Animal Biology, MS in Biology/Conservation Biology, BA in Biology
Anatomy and physiology courses often share a somewhat dark problem: the procurement of cadavers. Many locations, including Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, do not have the facilities to host dissections, even if they could bring a body to the table.
For NMC professor Nick Roster, PhD, this is no longer a concern, as he has shifted into teaching this course entirely online. To some, that might seem to present a different challenge—after all, it is not possible to engage in realistic dissections in a digital space. Or at least it was not possible until recent developments in technology.
To develop his online-only A&P course, Roster had to evaluate many different types of programs, apps, and systems. Fortunately, that research is something he thoroughly enjoys. “The problem I have,” he says, “is that I see something shiny, and I want to incorporate it into the class right away. There’s too much good stuff out there now.”
Here, he shares a bit about his experience making the switch to online—and finding the “good stuff” that finally brought his idea to life.
“My job is to make science so cool that you want to do it. And digital tools help students understand the processes of science and unlock a lot more understanding than they would in ‘cookbook labs.”
-Nick Roster, PhD
Course description: BIO 227 – This course will include an introduction to cells, histology, biochemistry, and homeostasis. In addition, the following systems will be discussed: integumentary, skeletal, muscle, nervous, and special senses. BIO 228 – The second semester will continue major systems in the body including: the endocrine system, cardiovascular system, lymphatic system, respiratory system, digestive system, metabolism, urinary system, fluid balance, reproduction and inheritance.
Roster’s 5 tech picks for anatomy and physiology
When he first began teaching at NMC, Roster’s A&P course was entirely face-to-face. But as educators in many disciplines have discovered, today’s students demand more flexibility in the timing of lectures, labs, and homework. He initially adopted a hybrid approach, determined to keep the lab work hands-on until technology could provide students with the appropriate rigor in a simulated manner—particularly in terms of dissections.
Roster now uses cutting-edge technology in all aspects of his courses to motivate students, deliver content, offer labs, and assess student learning. Here are some of the programs he finds most effective.
GradeCraft: For a gamified learning management system
In the past, Roster found that if students got their first tests back with a grade of, say, 80%, they would be discouraged. “They’d think, ‘If I can’t get an A, why should I keep at it?’” he says. “That’s really defeating to students.” But GradeCraft does not work that way.
GradeCraft is an example of what Roster calls “gameful learning.” In a game, there are points, quests, lives, leveling up, and learning from mistakes. This learning management system instills these elements into education. On GradeCraft, students start the semester at zero points, boosting their score throughout the semester by completing quests (aka assignments). A high score for the course is 1400, which is equal to a grade of A. By keeping that A always in reach, students are motivated to keep to increase their points and raise their grades.
They are also allowed to fail and start over, just like getting a new life in a game. If students are not satisfied with the points they earn on a quest, they can take the teacher’s feedback and redo the assignment until they get it right. Once they do get it right, they earn more points, or even full points. Roster equates it to the videogame “Angry Birds.” In that game, players can finish a challenge earning one star and be satisfied, or they can go back to earn two or three stars. “That is gameful,” Roster says. “There are a lot of times in our lives when we [are able to] learn from our mistakes,” he adds. “I’m trying to model real life into the classroom, along with adding these elements for motivation. Students want three stars!”
Visible Body: For 3D virtual dissections
As mentioned, at NMC, students do not have cadavers or facilities for doing dissections, so students use digital 3-D virtual anatomy models on the program Visible Body. In anatomy lab practicals, bodies are dissected, then the instructor places a pin in various sections and asks students to identify them. With the digital approach, Roster assigns a particular body part, and students must find it and click on it. Or they may have to virtually dissect a body section to find and identify one part. They submit their answers and find out whether they are right or wrong. Other benefits include being able to rotate and zoom in on images.
PhysioEx and Labster: For 3-D physiology simulations
For physiology labs, Roster uses a Pearson product called PhysioEx, which allows students to carry out experiments they would not be able to do in a classroom. For example, says Roster, “with PhysioEx, they can do ‘wet’ labs that are difficult, if not impossible to do [otherwise]. We can have students look at action potentials of neurons and how they are influenced by strength of stimulus. We can do similar experiments with muscle. We have the students also look at filtration rates in kidneys under diverse circumstances. These are things our labs are just not equipped to do. And the students don’t have to worry about setup, so they can focus on gathering and interpreting data.”
Because it uses Adobe Flash, which may be discontinued in the future, Roster is afraid PhysioEx will be phased out. But he is looking at another option called Labster, which offers labs in chemistry, evolution, general biology, and other subjects. Roster has found that Labster’s actual anatomy and physiology offerings are a little bit light right now, but the company is constantly improving the product. The PhysioEx labs are 3-D and can be undertaken using a virtual reality helmet.
Labster and GradeCraft: For real-life case studies
Many of the case studies Roster has been using come from the University of Buffalo National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, but recently he learned that Labster is heading toward teaching through using real-life case studies, too. Case studies draw students into real-life problems and show them the stories behind the lessons, he says. And when they have to immerse themselves in the subject—figure out the solution to a problem, do their own CSI work, pretend they are the doctor and have to save their patient—they are motivated and engaged, and they have fun.
Case studies can be multipart, adds Roster, and this is where gaming platforms like GradeCraft really helps. Students read and answer questions on Part 1. Roster looks at their work, and if he accepts their answers, they can move on to Part 2. (This works like “unlocks” in games, where completing one activity enables the player to start another that was previously locked.)
Educreations: For student podcast projects
Roster believes that teaching is a great way to learn, so he has students create their own podcasts to demonstrate their understanding of assigned topics, and to sharpen their communication skills. Students use a free program called Educreations to record a lesson and include visuals.
Roster feels that this activity is especially productive for students in a pre-nursing program. “I tell them, ‘You’re going to be the one who’s left in the room after the doctor gives the patient all the technical terms, and the patient looks at you and asks what that means.’ Nurses have to explain things. That’s an important skill.”
Some students have told Roster they do not like making the podcasts, but he feels that means he is on the right track. “To me, that makes it a little more valid because I’m pushing them outside their comfort zones. That’s what education is about. We have to push students out,” he says.