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Cadaver lab gives students in-depth STEM experience

Program meant to encourage students to explore medicine, dentistry or other STEM fields
Nationally, there are very few hands-on cadaver labs at the high school level.
Nationally, there are very few hands-on cadaver labs at the high school level.

An austere doctor’s office with three cadavers laid out on stainless-steel examination tables awaited students from seven Illinois high schools. Reminiscent of a scene from CSI, it was a lab where advanced biology students got a hands-on experience of medical science by dissecting human bodies.

The group of 33 juniors and seniors learned about organ systems and muscle groups in this first-in-state high school cadaver lab, which began in April. The program, which ran twice a week for eight weeks after school and on weekends, is sponsored by the McLean County Medical Society in Bloomington, Ill., a nonprofit group of physicians.

“The physicians bring a level of expertise that a teacher doesn’t have—it’s a whole different skillset we can’t model at the high school level,” says Gary Tipsord, superintendent of LeRoy Community Unit School District in central Illinois, a rural school system of 850 students that organized the partnership with the medical society.

Tipsord wanted to explore innovative educational opportunities that give students real-life career experiences. “We came up with the idea of partnering with people who have the expertise and are willing to engage with our kids beyond the normal school day for the purpose of learning,” Tipsord says.

Nationally, there are very few hands-on cadaver labs at the high school level, says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. Human dissection doesn’t typically begin until the first year of medical school, he adds.

“Lots of professional organizations have programs they conduct outside of school to encourage interest in their fields,” Evans says. “I think the medical community has really stepped up and wanted to offer these opportunities to interested students.”

The few cadaver programs Evans knows of all have rigorous admission requirements. Students need to have taken certain advanced courses and also need to demonstrate a serious attitude toward studying the body. “These are not programs for all students,” he says.

At LeRoy High School, the lab is a next step for students taking an optional advanced anatomy and physiology course before school four days a week. The course is taught voluntarily by a retired teacher, and students don’t receive credits or grades.

The hope is the program will encourage students to explore medicine, dentistry or other STEM fields, Tipsord says.

Students have access to the three cadavers for two years, at no cost to the districts or the participants. Each of the seven districts decides individually how to select students for the program. In LeRoy, students need to complete advanced science coursework and to get a teacher recommendation to apply for the lab.

The first cadaver lab received an “unbelievably positive” response from students, Tipsord says. Those interested have to sign a form that states they will respect the cadaver and the scientific process, he adds.

“In my mind as a superintendent, this is a picture of what’s possible in education, if we’d be willing to exist outside of the comfortable box,” he says. “You walk into the room and have 33 kids in white lab coats with four high school teachers from different districts and physicians sharing a passion for learning.”