Monday, July 28, 2014

Syllabus Resources for A&P

Fall is the traditional start of the academic year, so as we approach that mark it may be a good time to think about ways to tweak our course syllabus in ways that may promote student success.  There are some "teaching moments" in a syllabus that we don't want to miss!

I have few suggestions for you to consider.


Experts call it excessive cognitive load and I say it's just plain rude to put all your policies, procedures, advice, and explanations in one or two big lumps, then expect students to actually read it and be familiar with the contents.

Go ahead and get it all down there—then chunk it by dividing it up into short sections, each with a short, descriptive heading.  Next, rearrange all your newly chunked sections into logical groupings with a short descriptive heading.  Now students will more likely read through it all, comprehend it better, and be more likely to refer to the syllabus before emailing you with their questions that can easily be answered by the syllabus.


We often blame it on which generation's pesonality they are ruled by—X, Y, millenial, baby-boomer—but I think it's just human nature to miss deadlines when you are unaware of the effects of doing that.

A syllabus is a good place to establish deadlines in a course, of course, but it's also a great place to briefly explain why deadlines are important.  You may want to get some ideas from this brief article—or simply link to the article from your syllabus:

Academic Integrity

The most effective deterrent against academic dishonesty—cheating—is to promote a culture of honesty in your course.  The syllabus is a great way to get that on the right footing at the outset.  Here's an example from one of my syllabi, in a chunked section titled Academic Integrity:
This course relies on the principle that all who participate will do so with the honesty befitting adult, professional studies.  Without integrity of all students, the integrity of the course, this school, and your own credentials all suffer. This means that all students are expected to submit only their own work, whether for assignments, papers, online tests or quizzes, in-class tests or quizzes, or any other component of this course.  Thus, students may not receive inappropriate help nor give inappropriate help to other students.
 SCC academic integrity policies outlined in the Student Handbook and other documents stipulate a variety of possible outcomes of violation of principles of basic academic integrity.  
In this course, receiving or giving inappropriate help in online tests, in-class exams, or assignments will ordinarily result in receiving "F" for the course.  Inappropriate help may include having someone do all or part of the work for you, providing or receiving copies of current in-class exam items or answers to in-class exam items, and copying someone else's work and submitting it as your own.  
Students who witness or have reason to suspect violations of academic integrity in this course and do not report it promptly, thus further enabling the dishonesty, will themselves also be subject to disciplinary action.
I strongly suggest that you read the brief article Why be honest?
Feel free to adapt this (perhaps shorten it a bit?) for your own syllabus.  Or use this link— —in your syllabus to simply send them directly to an article that explains it all.

Handcrafted Uniqueness

This is kind of silly—but that's the point.  I always include something like this in each and every syllabus:
Minor imperfections further enhance the  handcrafted uniqueness of this document.
It's a joke, right?  Well, sort of.  It's actually true, and so it is fair warning that there are bound to be mistakes in my syllabus. But it's also lighthearted enough to set the light, informal tone that improves student engagement and openness to a new instructor and a new course.

For more ideas like this, check out Professors are from Mars, Students are from Snickers: How to Write and Deliver Humor in the Classroom and in Professional Presentations by Ronald A. Berk (Stylus Publishing, 2003)


Students in the anatomy and physiology course are likely to learn more new "foreign" words than they would in a beginning Spanish, French, or German course.  So it's important to set that fact out there early, so that students can get a handle on that aspect of A&P from the get-go.

Besides a brief statement about the need to learn a new language in the syllabus, I've found it helpful to link to (or embed) these resources:

Spelling is Important

Your peritoneum is not your perineum, right?  And in a medical chart, that could get through all the checks and alerts even in today's "smart" electronic environment.  I, for one, am not willing to put my life—or my perineum—in the hands of a medical spell-checker.  So it's important that A&P students learn that an incorrectly spelled term term is an incorrect term.

I suggest spelling that out (pardon the pun) in the course syllabus.  Because not all instructors "take off for spelling," it may unnecessarily shock your students when misspelled terms are not accepted at all in A&P. If they know ahead of time that correct spelling of scientific terms is part of the course, they'll be more accepting of the idea and—even better—prepared for it.

Consider adding a link to the article Is Spelling Important? to your syllabus:

Renting or Borrowing Books

You may have trouble buying this one, I realize, but I can't tell you how many of my former A&P students have sold back their A&P textbook, or returned their rented book, or lent it out on permanent loan to a friend or relative.  And then regretted it.  Why? Because they need it for their health professions courses—and even in their jobs.  A good A&P textbook is not just a learning tool for use in the A&P course, it's a valuable addition to their own professional reference library.

I usually add a phrase like this to the list of required books and manuals for my courses:
Don't rent your A&P text book!  Click here for the reasons.
And don't sell it back at the end of the course. Here's why.
Here are the URLs if you want to use a similar approach—and save some students a bit of heartache when they realize they've lost a valuable resource they'll need later:
Rental URL
Sell-back URL

You may not agree with this approach.  Or perhaps your school rents or lends textbooks to all students and you can't officially go against that in your syllabus.  But it's an idea worth considering if you have the latitude to advise your students in this manner—and the insight to see the value of such advice.

The A&P Student

Lastly, there are a lot of A&P-specific study tips, tools, and advice available FREE for your students at my blog for students called The A&P Student.
  • Use this URL to link to it from your syllabus or course site: 
  • If your learning management system allows for an RSS feed in your course, why not add this one?
  • If you want some FREE bookmarks for your students with the URL for the resource, click here. 

Photo credit: Handcraft

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Number of Human Genes Revised Downward. Again.

Genomic researchers in Spain have recently proposed a new, lower number of protein-coding genes in the human genome.  Previously, the number of coding genes was estimated by some at nearly 22,000 in the human genome.  The new estimate is approximately 19,000 protein-coding genes.

How can we use this new information in teaching undergraduate A&P?  Well, first we can update the numbers we use when discussing the role of genes in protein synthesis.  If it fits with our course objectives, we can use this as a way to transition to a discussion of coding vs. noncoding genes.

We also have an opportunity to discuss how science works—we are constantly checking our facts and revising our conclusions to improve the accuracy of our knowledge.  And that the story of genomics is far from complete.

I often tell students that I'm trying to tell them "the last, best story" of the human body's structure and function.  So if my story changes over time, that's a good thing!

FREE image you can use in your course

Want to know more?

Size of the human genome reduced to 19,000 genes

  • Science Daily. July 3, 2014
  • Press release in plain English based on information provided by researchers.

Multiple evidence strands suggest that there may be as few as 19 000 human protein-coding genes. 

  • I. Ezkurdia, et al. Human Molecular Genetics, 2014; DOI: 10.1093/hmg/ddu309
  • Research article proposing the newly revised number.  Open access to full text of article.

Want a FREE digital image of the nuclear genome that you can use in your presentation, handout, or other course material?  The image above is in the public domain and can be used in your course materials.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Biological Pacemaker Using Gene Therapy

Researchers recently induced ordinary cardiac muscle fibers into becoming functioning pacemaker cells by injecting a therapeutic gene.

Working with pigs, a common model for human cardiovascular research, researchers first destroyed the natural pacemaker cells in each subject's heart and installed an electronic pacemaker. They then inserted a gene for transcription factor TBX18 into cardiac muscle tissue using an adenovirus.  Using adenovirous vectors for inserting genes is a common strategy in gene therapy.

Within a couple of days, ordinary myocardial fibers had developed the structure and function of pacemaker cells.  In about 5 days, the electronic pacemakers were no longer needed.

However, this biological pacemaking peaked at about 8 days, then eventually disappeared.  This may occur because the virus-infected cells are probably destroyed by the body's immune defenses.  So researchers are thinking that perhaps, at the very least, this could eventually lead to a temporary treatment for certain arrythmias in humans.

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?  

  • This is an interesting bit of news that helps illustrate the frontiers of human biomedical sciences.
  • This story provides a good case to provoke a discussion of the nature of gene therapy.  
    • Why did the effect last only 8 or so day?  
    • What does this tell us about transcription factor TBX18?  
    • What benefit might this treatment have if developed for humans?
  • This may add interest to an discussion of the function of the electrical system of the heart in general, and artificial pacemakers in particular.
  • The case also provides a scenario in which the body attacks and destroys virus-infected cells.
FREE image you can use in your course

Want to know more?

Next Generation: Biological Pacemakers

  • R Williams, The Scientist ( July 16, 2014
  • Plain-English article summarizing the discovery.  Includes quotes from the researchers.

Biological pacemaker created by minimally invasive somatic reprogramming in pigs with complete heart block
  • Y-F. Hu et al., Science Translational Medicine, 6:245ra94, 2014. DOI:10.1126/scitranslmed.3008681
  • Original research report.
FREE image you can use in your course

Photo credit: vfdbsn

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Life Science Teaching Resource Community

Have you heard that the American Physiological Society (APS) has expanded their Archive of Teaching Resources into The Life Science Teaching Resource Community?

This new online community—LifeSciTRC for short—offers thousands of FREE resources that you can use in your A&P course!

This transition marks a culmination of efforts of APS and several other scientific societies to advance the Archive of Teaching Resources beyond an online library into a community of practice for life science educators at the K-12, undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.

The LifeSciTRC offers more than 6,000 free, scientifically-accurate teaching resources along with many new tools that allow educators to share their ideas and teaching expertise including:
  • Community pages with news and recommended teaching resources
  • Blogs focusing on classroom and science topics relevant to educators
  • Forums for educator-led discussions
  • Resource rating and commenting areas where educators can share their experiences of using resources
  • Monthly newsletters highlighting community members, news, and resources
I can't speak highly enough of the quality and diversity of teaching resources available in the archive.  These are peer-reviewed submissions from all levels of teaching and learning.  Case studies, experiments, demonstrations, slide presentations—all kinds of great stuff!

The new system is really easy (and fun) to use.  It has a starred rating system, so you can see how others have rated each resource.  And you can earn badges by submitting and reviewing items.

In addition to the new name, the LifeSciTRC will feature three new scientific society partners:
  • The Physiological Society
  • Genetics Society of America
  • American Society of Plant Biologists
These societies will join the current partners:
  • APS
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology Society
  • Society for Developmental Biology
  • American Association of Anatomists
  • Massachusetts Society for Medical Research
  • Northwest Association for Biomedical Research
Educators looking for new teaching ideas or interaction with other educators are invited to visit and discover what they have to offer.

For more information, contact our colleague at APS, Miranda Byse, PhD, Program Manager at or 240-743-8045.  Be sure to tell her where you heard the message!

Some content in this post came from APS

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mutations in Mitochondrial DNA

A new study suggests that DNA mutations in some of the mitochondria of healthy people may be a lot more common than scientists thought.

The term heteroplasmy describes a situation in which some mitochondria of a cell have mutant mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and other mitochondria have normal mtDNA.  Cell function can become disordered, perhaps producing disease, when the balance of mutant vs. normal mtDNA crosses a certain threshold.

The recent study shows that about 90% of healthy people studied in the 1000 Genomes Project had at least one heteroplasmy.  Some of these (about 20%) have been shown to correlate to disease.  That's a lot more than we were thinking prior to the study (25%-65% heteroplasmy rate).

We don't  know the significance of this finding yet, but it could influence how likely it is for mitochondrial diseases to develop over time—or to be inherited.  Could the mutant/normal mtDNA balance get skewed as oocytes form, thus giving different offspring different probabilities of inheriting mitochondrial disorders?  Or change the probabilities from one generation to the next?  Mitochondrial dysfunction is thought to be a mechanism of agingcould the rate of heteroplasmy be part of the aging mechanism?

What can we use from this in teaching undergraduate A&P?  The fact that we now know that mtDNA mutations are common in healthy people will be interesting and useful to students.

Want to know more?

Mutations Pervade Mitochondrial DNA

  • Jyoti Madhusoodanan. The Scientist ( July 7, 2014
  • This is a plain-English article summarizing the new findings; includes quotes from the researchers.

Extensive pathogenicity of mitochondrial heteroplasmy in healthy human individuals

  • K. Ye et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), doi:10.1073/pnas.1403521111, 2014. 
  • This is the original research report.

Want a FREE labeled image of mtDNA that you can use in your presentation, handout, or other course material?