In the eyes of her parents, Aarika Capra was always a “little scientist” and a “little teacher.” Growing up, it seemed that Capra could not go places without lining her pockets with pets, leaves, and rocks to examine later at home. The child-like curiosity has followed her throughout years of teaching swimming lessons, babysitting, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees (respectively) in Biology and Curriculum & Instruction.
Today, Capra is a Science and Career & Technical Education teacher at Brighton High School, northeast of Denver, Colorado. An area that has undergone rapid change since she first started teaching in 2003. “When I drove out for my interview, I remember driving past a KOA campground and into the countryside.” At that time, Brighton High School was the only high school. Today, there are three.
Capra considers herself lucky to work in a school district whose programming has a unique focus on Health Sciences. At Brighton High School, students can become certified nurse assistants (CNAs), take a course in phlebotomy, electrocardiograph (EKG), sports medicine and personal training—opportunities Capra herself admits she “wishes she was exposed to as a kid.” Post-secondary health professions are often embedded into the very classes Capra teaches, such as Introduction to Biomedical Sciences and Anatomy & Physiology.
When it comes to teaching, Capra’s philosophy can be summed up with the phrase, “You learn it, you do it, you teach it.” Ms. Capra has plenty of tools in her toolbox to help get across this idea. But there is one, which she has used in her classes for almost 15 years, that is a loyal emissary: the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System.
Let’s take an example. Students learning about the cardiovascular system in Capra’s class, become heart surgeons (for a day, at least), as they undertake the not-so-small task of a Coronary Artery Bypass Graft, otherwise known as the CABG or the “cabbage” procedure. Armed with clay and real-life videos of heart surgeries, students build the hearts. Borrowing a vein (blue clay) from another part of the body, they carefully attach blood vessels and construct a bypass. When satisfied with their heart, the students take the clay home and teach their parents the procedure.
You learn it, you do it, you teach it.
What makes the system so successful in Capra’s classes is its flexibility. Yes, the clay is malleable and can be used to build, destroy, and rebuild without limit. Capra uses the models in her honors-level high school classes but has also used them to build brain stem and cerebral lobes with third graders.
And while the cardiovascular system is her favorite to teach using the clay, she also uses the clay to study how the disease process is tied up in the digestive, lymphatic, and even nervous
systems. With the MANIKEN® models in Capra’s classroom, real-life examples are never far away: when they are not building hearts, they are seeing how far up the lymphatic chain the breast cancer has spread.
“People talk about it,” says Capra, of learning with the clay. Students are initially excited because they have heard about the experience from other students. When it comes to building on the models, some students are perfectionists, while others build muscles so big that their models fall over. There have been certain times when Capra is teaching an entirely different topic when suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a loud PLOP: a past model’s gut, eviscerated on the classroom floor. “Someone didn’t build strong abdominal muscles,” remarks Capra.
The Anatomy in Clay® models at Brighton High School are useful even for students that are not interested in health care careers. Those students “are still going to learn a ton of things that will help them in the future,” for example, in comprehending “what our doctors are saying, so that when a family member talks to us, we might help them understand information about a disease we have learned about.” Students can take learned concepts and apply them in different contexts, whether in weightlifting, physical education classes, or athletics. Taking these science courses and working with the models helps one appreciate “how our body works, and how to keep it healthy,” says Capra.
A culminating activity across Capra’s classes is a (fully optional) visit to a cadaver lab. While intense, it is also an experience in which many students feel prepared due to their prior clay-building endeavors in the classroom. The visit lends perspective. In the lab, students can see how different lifestyles literally shape structures in the human body. Yes, every human being has a cardiovascular and a digestive system, but the form of each differs widely across individuals—and, of course, not every structure looks as rendered in clay or in a textbook.
Capra is happy to work in a school district in which students are supported with educational tools like the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System. And we think that Brighton students are lucky to have teachers like Aarika Capra.
To hear more about Ms. Capra’s experience, tune into the podcast. Psst, fellow educators: stick around until the end to hear some of Capra’s logistical tips for using the clay!