Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Google Body Browser

My editor Jeff recently pointed me to a story about Google's recently launched Body Browser.  I was amazed at this latest creation of Google Labs.

The Body Browser is a FREE online tool that you and your students can use to explore the anatomy of the human body in a "virtual dissection" format.  Using the familiar Google Maps navigation tools, you can . . .
  • Peel (or fade) away layers of the body . . . removing the skin, then muscles, then bones, to reveal the internal organs

  • Select systems (skeletal, muscular, nervous, cardiovascular) to view

  • Click on any structure to show its label

  • Type the name of any structure in the search box to find it in the body

  • Tilt, zoom, turn the body to a variety of positions to see organs in more views that usually available in a textbook, atlas, or chart
The Body Browser runs inside any WebGL-enabled browser, meaning that you don't have to worry about having the latest Flash or Java plugins installed.

I think Body Browser a is a great FREE tool for A&P students to have access to an online model of the human body that can be used for a beginning study of anatomy.  Because it allows the user to type in the names of organs for which they are looking, you don't need to worry about it being too high (or too low) a level for your course.

There are a few minor limitations of the Body Browser:
  • The only available specimen is female (that is, there is no male specimen available to complement the female specimen)

  • The specimen is partially clothed.  Although one can see some of the underlying surface structures as the "skin" layer fades back, it's not the same as seeing these structures clearly.  An odd feature that makes certain regions of the body "off limits." (I've seen some hacks to fix this, but none of them work for me using the Chrome browser)

  • Some of the organs are roughly rendered, so it's not as detailed (at least in some areas) as you may like to see

  • Only a few systems can be shown in entirety.  Some useful system views that are missing are the lymphatic system and the respiratory system

  • You cannot select or hide individual organs for display
  • I could find no documentation or even a help button (pretty typical of Google Labs resources)
Even with some minor limitations, Body Browser is still a fantastic study and teaching tool.  As an A&P professor, you might use Body Browser as . . .
  • a presentation tool during a class lecture or discussion to demonstrate the location and structure of specific organs

    • you could use it live or you could record a session with Jing or similar recording tool and use the pre-recorded exploration

  • a tutoring tool with which you can send the URL of a specific view (perhaps with a label) to a student or group of students

  • a testing tool with which you can create specific views that can then be used to test from on a quiz, test, or lab practical . . . perhaps using a screen capture tool such as Jing

  • alternative lab model to use along with, or in place of, physical models in the lab

    • it may be useful as a reference to side by side with a laboratory model

    • use it in place of a laboratory model in a distance learning course
I'll be listing some ideas for student  uses of Body Browser at my blog The A&P Student.

Do you have some other ideas for using Body Browser in an undergraduate A&P course?  Just use the comment feature and share your ideas with us!

Check out this video to see a demo of the currently available features of Body Browser

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

See you in Sarasota?

I plan on attending the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS) Southeast Regional Conference on January 22, 2011, in the Sarasota FL area. 

Will I see you there?

These regional HAPS meetings are wonderful.  Not only do you get to meet and chat with folks doing what you do from all kinds of institutions, you'll hear loads of ideas on how to better help your students succeed in A&P.

And what better time of year to head off for coastal Florida, eh?

Want some details?

Go to the official meeting website my-ap.us/f7HO2K for more information on invited speakers, available workshops, travel info, etc.. . . and a handy online registration form.

And I'll be presenting a workshop there:

Helping A&P Students Succeed:
Using Supplemental Courses to
Reinforce Concepts and Promote Learning Skills
Do your A&P students struggle with the whole process of learning?
Do they seem ill prepared in their study skills and their knowledge of basic principles of biology?
Explore a case study in which short supplemental courses provide underprepared and unskilled students
with knowledge and skills that make them better able to succeed in the A&P course and beyond.
You will also receive free resources to help your own students succeed.

I hope I see you there!  I'd love to chat with you.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Father of Fractals

You may have already heard the recent news of the passing of Benoit Mandelbrot, originator of the iconic Mandelbrot Set (pictured) and founder of the field of fractal geometry.  It brings to mind the deeper understanding of human structure and function that has resulted directly from applying principles of fractal geometry.  An important set of principles that I believe we A&P professors could do a better job of helping our students appreciate.

Mandelbrot's pioneering efforts in understanding the roughness of nature led to the discovery of basic principles of fractal geometry.  A key characteristic of fractal structures is self-similarity (the parts resemble the whole).

In human anatomy, this self-similar characteristic is observed in surfaces that have folds, which have bumps, which in turn have their own bumps, and so on . . . producing unexpectedly huge total surface areas.  For example, think of the loops of the intestines, which in turn have circular folds of mucosa, which in turn have villi, which in turn have microvilli, which in turn have membranes embedded with bumpy molecules, and so on. 

Fractal self-similarity can also be observed in branched structures, such as the respiratory tract and the cardiovascular vessels.  These structures have branches that have branches that have branches, and so on for many levels . . . producing large numbers of pathways and huge surface areas.

A particularly interesting characteristic of such complex fractal structures is that they are produced with relatively simple mathematical formulae.  Which means that very little genetic information is needed to produce highly complex structures like intestines, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, bronchial trees, cerebral convolutions, etc.

Fractal structures are also chaotic, a mathematical concept of "constrained randomness."  Put simply, chaotic structures have an element of randomness but within limits.  So when our body applies fractal geometry during development we can be certain of a particular type of structure without being certain we'll know exactly where each individual bump or branch will lie.  In other words, we can more or less be certain where the main arteries will be (with some individual variation) but not so much for the various arterioles and capillaries . . . at least not precisely.

Principles of chaos also play out in human physiology when we observe the aperiodic (nonrhythmic) patterns of heart rate, brain waves (as in an EEG), and certain other functions.

Mandelbrot opened up a whole new understanding of human structure and function that is only now becoming understood widely.  I've been introducing the concept of chaos and fractals in my courses, and more subtly in some of my textbooks, for several years now.  My experience is that introducing simplified principles of chaos and fractals at the beginning of A&P 1, then reinforcing them when encountered throughout both semesters of A&P, help student appreciate an intriguing and important concept of human structure and function.  A concept that is increasingly playing a central role in science's understanding of human biology.

Want to know more?

BenoĆ®t Mandelbrot (1924–2010)
Ralph Gomory
Nature Volume: 468, Page 378, Date published: 18 November 2010, doi:10.1038/468378a, Published online: 17 November 2010
[A brief synopsis of Mandelbrot's life and contributions from the journal Nature]

Chaos in the Human Body (Mini Lesson)
Kevin Patton
Lion Den http://lionden.com/chaos.htm
[Brief outline that I use with my own students in A&P 1]

Applications of Fractals - Human Body
Oracle Education Foundation. online (accessed 2 Dec 2010)
[Brief student-produced outline of some fractal principles of the body]

Fractal Geometry in Biological Systems: An Analytical Approach
Philip M. Iannaccone, Mustafa Khokha
CRC Press 1996
[Book outlining the initial discoveries of fractals in humans.]

Chaos: Making a New Science
James Gleick
Penguin 2008
[Reprint of the classic bestseller book that outlines in simple terms the concepts of chaos and fractal geometry.  Highly recommended.  Includes some applications/examples in human biology.]