Computer Becomes A Microscope For Some UB Medical Students First-Year Students Examine Tissues of The Body Using Computers

By Lois Baker

Release Date: August 22, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Histology -- the study of minute animal and plant tissues -- normally may be a dry subject, but putting lab work on the computer screen may spice it up and save students large amounts of time, according to a scientist at the University at Buffalo.

John R. Cotter, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and cell biology in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, has designed an interactive computer program to create an active, self-instructional learning environment for his course "Anatomy 504."

UB is one of a small number of medical schools nationwide to integrate computers into histology courses.

Cotter introduced four computer exercises this summer as part of the first-year histology course at the medical school. Twenty-seven medical students used IBM computers to work on programs for epithelium, muscle tissue, blood and connective tissues -- topics that ordinarily would be studied using the microscope.

"Overall, it seems to be doing the job,” Cotter says. “Students receive the same feedback as in the regular lab, but they don't need someone standing over their shoulders. The bottom line is that they are learning what we are teaching.

"We don't want students to be doing this passively, but in an active fashion," he adds. "We try to develop the exercises so they are as interactive as possible."

The simplest form of interaction involves "hotwords," underlined words that may be clicked on with a mouse. The hotwords connect information provided in the text to hidden graphics or text that overlay the images.

Students also may respond to questions or attempt to identify components of the specimen by clicking on it. Their responses may be confirmed without raising their hands and waiting for a lab instructor's approval. Other interactional features include magnification of specific structures.

"You didn't need to wait for a T.A. (teaching assistant). The answers were right there," says first-year student Prashant Parashurama. Students also can examine various examples faster on the computer instead of switching back and forth between numerous microscope slides and searching all over for specific details, he notes.

The approach has been well-received by students and faculty alike, winning first prize in the exhibit program at the UB Spring Clinical Day '94 last April.

"He (Cotter) has done an excellent job of using what interactive technology has to offer to advance the educational process," says John Loonsk, M.D., director of medical computing at UB. Students find the computer approach more interesting than microscopes alone. Cotter distributed a student questionnaire after each exercise to assess the effectiveness of the program's format, organization and clarity of objectives. He found that the computer work was "very well received."

Cotter began developing the program nearly two years ago. The process includes photographing the original slides at different magnifications and then electronically digitizing them. Once digitized, he handles them with Photostyler and uses a software package, "ToolBook," to create the exercises.

He is working on two new exercises on kidney and skeletal tissues.

Cotter does not anticipate that the computer will completely take the place of the microscope. The analytical approach would be lost if microscopes disappeared from labs, he said.

But for some students, working on a computer does help the transition to microscope work.

"For some students, it's a difficult adjustment to work with a microscope. In the beginning, it's difficult to get over the hurdle of learning this methodology," Cotter says, explaining that first-year medical school students come from a variety of backgrounds and not all are biology majors who have had frequent contact with microscopes.

Daniel Yawman, who had no prior histology experience, says that the computer exercises were a good introduction to microscope work. "It gives you the basics of what you need to know. It boils it down. On the microscope, you can spend a lot of time just being clueless for a while."

Ariel Hotchkiss found the computer exercises worked best as a review and study tool. "They helped connect concepts with images," she says.