Dissecting the anatomy of a ‘superheroic’ science class

What do superheroes . 

First author Jeremy Grachan, the mastermind behind the course’s creation, led design of the curriculum as an Ohio State PhD student and is now an assistant professor of anatomy at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. 

SuperAnatomy was created as a 1000-level three-credit-hour undergraduate course open to students of all majors. The class consisted of three 55-minute lectures each week and lab sessions offered twice in the semester. The course’s curriculum borrowed heavily from Human Anatomy 2300, a four-credit-hour course taken primarily by pre-health profession majors, consisting of live and recorded lectures, review sessions and one lab per week. 

Students from both classes were invited to join the study over three semesters in 2021 and 2022; 36 students in SuperAnatomy and 442 students in Human Anatomy participated. Researchers collected data from 50-question quizzes given during the first week of classes and at the end of the semester intended to gauge how well students learned and applied course content. The students also completed pre- and post-course surveys. 

The quiz results showed that student learning and application of material in the two courses was essentially the same. And to be clear, the SuperAnatomy content was not all cartoons and comic books. 

“We looked at courses already running in our anatomy curriculum and took the relevant parts of those courses and added in the superheroes,” Quinn said. “So we actually elevated the curriculum.” 

The follow-up survey of SuperAnatomy participants suggested the inclusion of superheroes strengthened their class experience, with nearly all students reporting that pop culture and superhero references expanded their understanding of course material and boosted their motivation to do well in the class. 

“Collectively, if the students are enjoying the course and motivated to learn the material it could be better not only for their academic success, but their mental health and social wellbeing too,” the authors wrote. 

Human anatomy is tough stuff – on top of the high volume of unfamiliar medical terms rooted in Latin, it can be unsettling to learn about the body in such a scientific, yet intimate, way. 

“If you don’t have a good tour guide to help you, you might be inclined to give up pretty quickly,” Quinn said. “And none of us wants to be stale in our teaching.

“Here, we’ve seen that you can take a course like anatomy, which has been around forever, and bring it very much to whatever generation that we’re going to be teaching. And it’s not just about having fun – but a way to really make anatomy very interesting.”

Mason Marek and James Cray Jr. of Ohio State also co-authored the study.

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