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On the Cutting Edge: Bringing a Classroom Lab to ‘Real’ Life

It had been a while.

More than 20 years to be precise.

"I have not done a pig brain dissection since undergrad and the last time I taught high school students was during medical school," says Dr. David Kim, who entered a different lab setting for a few hours to share his medical expertise with two Grade 12 biology classes at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS).

Fortunately, he says, "like riding a bicycle, it all came back quickly!"

SMCS biology lab dissection | Jacob Lang, teacher
Jacob Lang is a biology teacher at St. Michael’s College School.
SMCS biology lab dissection | Dr. David Kim
Dr. David Kim is a neurologist and current SMCS parent who provided instruction to students.

Dr. Kim is Head of Neurology at Markham Stouffville Hospital and a current parent at SMCS.

When the call went out a few weeks ago — from the school’s Community and Learning Partnerships department led by John Walsh ’73 — asking for any parent volunteers interested in sharing their expertise to enrich student learning — the neurologist, who specializes in stroke, signed up.

"Normally, I teach the central nervous system and lead the dissection in the next class myself," says Jacob Lang, biology teacher. "My lessons include videos, high quality images, GIFs, and plenty of external resources to facilitate the student’s learning."

The opportunity to have a medical professional bring their lens to the brain dissection session — elevating the curriculum in a distinctly different way — was a natural fit for both teacher and physician.

SMCS biology lab dissection | Dr. David Kim with students

"The goal of the session was to introduce them to brain anatomy and function through a hands-on approach," says Dr. Kim. "The dissection allowed them to appreciate the three-dimensional relationships between anatomical structures. I provided clinical vignettes to show them the real-world consequences of damage to some of the structures they were seeing."

"Being an expert in the field, his knowledge and expertise with the mammalian brain was palpable to all in the room, including me," adds Lang. "Typically, students ask a variety of questions that I answer but with Dr. Kim present, his answers contained a layer of personal experience with patients with issues in these parts of the brain. He was also able to add a layer of context and real-world implication and application to why we learn and study the brain in the first place."

Philippe Mugford first experienced dissecting an earthworm early on in high school. This latest analysis provided more discoveries.

"The most surprising thing to me from the brain dissection was probably how clearly you could see the different parts of the brain," says the Grade 12 student. "Every structure looked different, and it was really easy to see the separation between them. The visiting neurologist gave great insight into the functions of each part of the brain, what happens when they are injured, and some cool facts about a lot of the parts of the brain."

SMCS biology lab dissection

For fellow Grade 12 student Thomas Marcon, the session featured a few striking features.

"I was very surprised for a moment when I saw the size of the pig brain compared to its eyes," says Marcon, who previously dissected a fetal pig in Grade 11. "We were told that it would come equipped with two eye stalks, in order to better understand the optic chiasm and how vision is processed, but I never would have imagined its eye to brain ratio to be of that proportion. I also found the brain’s texture surprising. I always had a pre-set notion that a brain would feel like jelly, but this one felt very firm as it was treated with preserving chemicals such as formalin." 

SMCS biology lab dissection

Marcon described having a neurologist in class to further guide students through the session as "amazing", adding "I also found it valuable that he was able to make connections to real-world applications of each region of the cerebrum which helps our overall understanding. It is so crucial for experts in their field to participate in lectures like this because I was able to grasp so many concepts beyond our regular curriculum."

Christopher has previously participated in the dissection of a frog, fetal pig, and kidneys. "It’s always so cool when getting the real thing in front of you," he says. "Books are great but they can only go so far."

This dissection presented the Grade 12 student with the opportunity to delve deeper.

SMCS biology lab dissection | Students working

"One of the best parts of dissections at least for me is getting a little bit of time to ‘explore’, so my partner and I decided to cut open the eye and look at the different nerves, substances, and structures inside," says Christopher. "I had never really studied the eye much before, and it was really cool to look at the lens, liquids and parts of the eye that allowed you to see and trace the nerves back to the parts of the brain that processed sight. It was also kind of surreal to get to hold an actual eye in my hand. It made me feel like a movie villain!"

For Dr. Kim — even more than two decades later — deeper learning for himself.

"What I love about neurology is that it is like being a detective, looking for clues at the bedside on the patient’s history and neurological exam, combined with advanced technologies like MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), to come to a diagnosis," he says.

SMCS biology lab dissection

At the same time, the physician who has been practicing medicine for 16 years, hopes the students left with a few key takeaways.

"To appreciate how we are fearfully and wonderfully made," he says. "[And] to learn how the knowledge they are learning now is relevant to real-world problems."

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