A highlight activity of the author's comparative anatomy class, this skeletal typogram activity challenges students to take their understanding of the skeletal system's components beyond mere memorization of bone names and locations. Each student creates a poster of a vertebrate skeleton, using the letters of the bone names to depict the actual bone shape and location. Animals are chosen by the teacher to represent a wide variety of evolutionary adaptations (swimming, flying, grazing, hunting, etc.). Students are then asked to compare the different typograms through analysis of contrasting skeletal evolutionary adaptations. The infographic nature of the project helps students understand the power of visual information, allowing for creative cross-disciplinary work. Through developing and comparing typograms, students deepen their understanding of how skeletal form fits function and the role of adaptation in vertebrate evolution.
Several years ago, while searching the Internet for a skeleton image for a human bones quiz, I found a human skeleton typogram created by Aaron Kuehn (Figure 1). This is how Kuehn described the work: “Here it is … a 2 dimensional static representation of long-stride locomotion! The component bones, ordinarily constructed with rigid mineralized tissues, have been entirely typo-grammatically replaced with 676 free and fused glyphs, together forming a complete skeletal diagram in LATIN. A radically literal graphic abstraction of anatomy” (https://alltop.com/viral/bone-up-on-anatomy-with-the-skeleton-typogram). This imaginative depiction of the human skeleton became the basis for a yearly project, one of the activities my comparative anatomy students have noted as a highlight of the course.
My one-semester Comparative Anatomy and Physiology elective is designed to give sophomore through senior high school students a basic understanding of mammalian anatomy and physiology. Students first learn basic human anatomy and physiology. In some activities, this becomes the groundwork for comparing tetrapod evolution for widely differing activities such as flight, hunting, burrowing, diving, and more. The course emphasizes project-based learning activities such as the skeleton typogram, allowing students to take imaginative ownership of their learning.
The skeleton typogram activity follows the “Bones Race,” in which students learn 29 major bones of the human body through a challenge to indicate them on the classroom skeleton in less than a minute (Figure 2). Despite initial cries of horror, after practice most students complete the task well within the allotted time. Students are given time in class to practice, both alone and in pairs. They also receive pointers to make the task as achievable as possible, such as naming bones in the same order each time, naming them from head to foot, and recognizing naming patterns (for example, phalanges are phalanges on any limb). A few minutes of both class time and homework time are allotted to practice for a week. Students then do the “Race” individually in front of their supportive classmates. The order in which they go is not significant, as any student completing the task receives a perfect score, and watching their classmates successfully complete the task generally encourages more hesitant students. Students truly nervous of performing in front of the class are allowed to come individually outside of class time to complete the task with just the teacher present. This introductory activity establishes student familiarity with the names, shapes, and placement of the major bones or bone groups of the human skeleton. However, there is not much intellectual excitement in being able to simply name bones (although cheering each other on during the Bones Race is fun). True understanding of the bony structure comes with appreciation of how comparative shape, size, and placement of the same bones in different species reflect evolutionary responses to different challenges for survival. Life on Earth shows amazing adaptations developed over evolutionary time, and skeletal adaptations of tetrapods provide many examples.
In the typogram activity, each student is given the name of a different animal, which I select as interesting representatives of vertebrate skeletal adaptations (Figure 3). Students then create a typogram of their assigned mammal on poster board. They are asked to include at least all the bones from the Bones Race; they often find that there are very interesting adaptations of other bones to include. Accompanying each poster, students write a one-page description of their animal, focusing on the bony adaptations that allow it to do what it does – run, slither, climb, swim, and so on. A list of assigned animals is provided (Figure 3), but there are potentially many more choices highlighting tetrapod evolution.
The projects are inevitably varied, interesting, and imaginative (Figure 4). We hold a celebratory anatomy zoo in which students review and learn from each other's work. A basic checklist/rubric is used for each student to both evaluate and learn from the details of each poster (Figure 5). The same rubric is used by the teacher for grading the project, excluding the final “What did you find different?” column. Note that a score for artistry is not included; this is important in emphasizing the learning that all students can do through the project rather than specifically rewarding the subset with more artistic skill or experience. The zoo is then hung in the hallway to share and be enjoyed by the student body as a whole. Following completion of this activity, it is evident that students have developed both a solid understanding of basic skeletal structure and an appreciation for how variations reflect evolutionary adaptation to survival in differing environmental challenges.
The author thanks Aaron Kuehn for his enthusiastic support of this project.