Instead of dissecting animals, students create small clay models of human internal organs to demonstrate their understanding of the positioning and interlocking shapes of the organs. Not only is this approach more environmentally friendly, it also forces them to learn human anatomy –– which is more relevant to them than the anatomy of other creatures –– in a creative and constructive manner. The article includes photos of students' work, a table for evaluation (grading rubric), and a list of materials, as well as some helpful hints.
For instructors seeking an alternative to dissection –– whether because of cost, environmental impact, or personal choice –– this activity is a low-tech option for either a whole class or a few students. Instead of dissecting animals, my students create 5-inch clay models of human internal organs. This is a fun, hands-on activity that taps into students' creativity, and it also requires them to understand the positioning and interlocking shapes of their own organs. As instructive as studying diagrams can be, more is learned about the digestive system when it is constructed from esophagus to rectum and interlaced with the heart and liver in the process. This way, students learn more about their own bodies while still learning kinesthetically. They gain a deeper understanding because they are producing something rather than merely manipulating it.
I give students one full class period (75 minutes) and then 30 minutes on the following day to finish their project. I allow them to take their models home between classes, but students rarely do so. Students are asked to include 10 organs: heart, trachea & lungs, esophagus & stomach, liver, pancreas, kidneys, small intestine, large intestine, bladder, and spinal cord, each in a different color. Additionally, I ask female students to include a uterus and ovaries and male students to include testes. They can use the myriad biology and anatomy textbooks available in my classroom as well as a life-size torso model. I also have a few examples of previous students' models for them to observe (Figure 1).
For a class of 30 students, you will need 5 kg of non-toxic, non-hardening modeling clay (450 g each of 11 colors), as well as 30 index cards for the color keys and 30 plastic bags for storage. Clay-working tools can also be helpful but are not necessary.
I grade using the evaluation parameters shown in Figure 2. Five points are given for each of the 11 organs. I base those 5 points on the organ's shape, position, relative size, and texture. Additionally, I give 15 points for the compactness of the model, 15 points for its aesthetics, and 15 points for the color key.
Here are a few final suggestions. If you have fewer than 11 colors of clay, students can either double up on nonadjacent organs (e.g., make both the heart and the pancreas blue) or they can mix the clay to form new colors. One year, everyone chose green for the lungs, so we ran out of green. Now I make sure that students use a variety of colors for the bigger organs (lungs and small intestine). I store leftover clay in sealed bags and use it again the next year.