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You Don't Need to be Michelangelo

For Dr. Susan Murphy, the “Anatomy light bulb” first went off in the third grade, when she dissected an earthworm. The earthworm sparked a curiosity.


What were organisms made of? How were they put together?


That curiosity followed Murphy as an undergraduate student and as she taught anatomy labs at Texas State University and, later, as a PhD student in zoology at the University of Hawaii. The light bulb endures still today at Our Lady of the Lake University, where the professor has taught biology for over 25 years.



In any given Murphy classroom, there will be future nurses, physical therapists, business people, and history buffs. The mix has led Murphy to develop a mantra that she shares with students, regardless of background: the “complementarity of structure and function.”


It sounds fancy, sure. But it boils down to this: when we do something—take a step, say, or make a movement—what in the human body is helping to make that activity happen?


It's a trick question because there is not just one answer. Our activities are mostly due to a variety of parts working together. Anatomy, she reminds her students, is more than just memorizing individual parts of the human body. And while students “may not understand the significance of each individual part,” they can appreciate that the part “contributes to the efficiency” of a system—whether that system is muscular, digestive, or respiratory.


Our Lady of the Lake University serves about 3,000 students, a large portion of which are Latinx and first-generation college students. There is an emphasis on hands-on learning opportunities. Classes are small, something Murphy likes. She strives to make of her a classroom a “community… an interactive group of learners that includes me,” she says. (Murphy concedes that yes, even the professor does not know all there is to know about anatomy, and she enjoys learning from her students in the variety of classes she teaches.)


So, when Murphy saw an Anatomy in Clay® Learning System presentation at a science conference in her home state, she immediately thought it would be a great fit. She was able to obtain a grant and a starter kit to use in all her classes.


When she talks about the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System, Murphy thinks back to a visually impaired student from ten years ago. Because of the student’s disability, she would not be able to partake in the cat dissection portion of the Anatomy & Physiology course. It’s important to see structures in dissection. And it’s easy to “mangle a lot when trying to clear away tissues” to see those structures. For both student and teacher, says Murphy, “clay was the answer!”


Of course, the rest of the students use the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System, too—in building a muscle or the vascular system, or in demonstrating locomotion and limb movement. Murphy considers it an essential tool in teaching the dance between structure and function. The professor notices that labs “become more talkative” when Anatomy in Clay® Learning System models are in play.


One of the initial activities in Murphy’s classes is to build a face, a particularly interesting task since many facial muscles don’t attach to bone. Murphy encourages students to build the face with an identity and expression in mind. Does the face belong to a couch potato, or a speedskater? Will their expression be taut, chiseled, or relaxed? After all, that’s what facial expressions are: the pushing and pulling of muscles.


The face will serve as a base for students throughout the course, as they progress in building other body systems. Towards the end, students will have different models, reflecting the fact that humans with different lifestyles will look differently. Adding these elements of creativity allows students to gain confidence and take ownership of their learning, Murphy says.


To the students who are at first reluctant or look at the models with wide eyes, Murphy’s message is: “You don’t have to be Michelangelo or da Vinci. Just don’t be Picasso.”


To catch the full conversation with Dr. Susan Murphy on the Anatomy in Clay® Learning Systems podcast, click here!

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