Getting Creative with Clay (And Cake)

Teacher Doug Smith has a few creative ideas for hands-on learning for students, whether in or outside of the classroom.

Hint: they involve the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System.


Another hint: they are occasionally edible.


And no, they do not involve eating clay.


Smith’s approach to teaching and learning science started in high school, when he was a self-professed “biology nerd” and wrestler, keenly aware of the leverage systems that make up the human body. He has been in teaching for over 40 years, a career long enough to convince him to retire, but not stay retired. Smith now teaches at Southridge High School, in Beaverton, a community southwest of Portland, Oregon.


Smith points out that the clay models totally transform the medium through which students learn the material. While students before used “quizlets,” flash cards, and memorization to learn the human body, they now learn the body by molding it. The human body is full of intricacies; assembling the MANIKEN® models allow students to “see the relationships” between the different systems. His students’ finished models are often adorned with Sticky Notes that identify whatever material they are studying at the time. In building the MANIKEN® models, “there are a-ha moments all over the place,” says Smith.


Another advantage for Smith is that he can use the clay models for “basically any structure that you can visualize three-dimensionally,” even down to the cellular level. Take action potential, a process that describes the movement of electric signals throughout the body, for example. With clay, Mr. Smith can create sodium and potassium ions, move them through (clay) protein structures, and voila—this is how a nerve moves down a nerve cell.


Or take sliding filament theory. Students can build actin and myosin filaments—say, on a MANIKEN® leg—and visualize how the two interact with ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) and slide past each other. This is the mechanism that allows our muscles to do what they do. The jargon of anatomy can be intimidating for anyone, no less for a high school student. But working with clay can keep the scare factor at bay.


Smith remarks that the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System has been a boon for English Language Learners (ELLs). ELLs make up around 40 percent of the student body at Southridge High School, and Smith has taught courses in which the number of ELLs are 70 percent. Students work together building models in groups irrespective of language background: according to the teacher, “they teach each other.” While anatomical concepts are taught in English, he has seen no marked difference in retention and learning between native English speakers and ELLs. The MANIKEN® models are “great equalizers,” he says.


Smith may have started his teaching career in 1979, but he is as adept as a millennial at integrating technology in his classes—a necessary skill for any teacher in these times of remote learning. For a recent lesson on layers of the skin, he recalls gathering materials for students: yellow cake mix, frosting, different colors of candy and licorice. Students built up the layers, step by step, documenting the process along the way. At the end, they sent in a picture of the assignment—and duly proceeded to eat their homework.


Listen to Smith discuss his approach on the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System podcast here.

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