by Wendy Simms, Technician, Biology, Faculty of Science and Technology, VIU
Every two years, the VIU Biology Department offers a course called Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy (Biology 358). Part of the laboratory component of this course requires students to rearticulate an animal skeleton. It is an extremely popular project not only because it involves drills and dremels and hot glue, but because students have a lot of input into the project and there is a tangible end product that they can show off. The completed skeletons are displayed on campus in the Biology labs and in the VIU Museum of Natural History. Skeletons have also been taken off campus to educate other students at various classrooms and science centers on Vancouver Island.
I have used the Biology 358 skeletons for kids programs of all ages. When I explain to a grade 4 class that the cougar skeleton before them was made by a VIU student, those kids are thoroughly impressed and begin to ask multiple questions. Unfortunately most of the VIU students don’t ever get to witness this first hand. Most of the students don’t ever get the opportunity to realize that they actually learned an incredible amount of information during the rearticulation process.
This past fall, Biology 358 was offered and the students worked extremely hard to produce 6 outstanding skeletons – a Trumpeter Swan, a Sea Otter, a Pacific Loon, a Barn Owl, a Beaver and a Great Blue Heron. The pride that went into ensuring those skeletons were anatomically correct, structurally sound and visually appealing was exciting to watch. Each student worked diligently on “their” piece of the project which ranged from making sea otter hand bones out of clay (to replace those that had been lost), to determining the placement of swan ribs (harder than it sounds), to hunting down the perfect piece of driftwood for their loon skeleton display. It was fun to watch the skeletons progress each week and listen to the students chat about the placement of their phalanges or baculum or hyoid arch.
As always, the students were pretty proud of their completed skeletons and had (unknowingly!) learned an incredible amount of information during the rearticulation process. However, this year, when the students completed the skeletons, it just happened to be during a fundraising event that I was helping organize for the VIU Museum. Liz DeMattia, the instructor for the course suggested that the students display their skeletons in front of the museum during the silent auction. It would be a great draw for people and it would be a fun way for them to show off their skeletons. We both knew the students would be more than capable of answering questions about the project. However, I don’t think either of us was prepared for what we witnessed.
Every time we walked by and overheard a student discussing the little details of how they did something, or why they did something during the rearticulation process it just gushed with pride and knowledge. They were so incredibly proud of their accomplishments that they wanted to explain to others about the difficulties they had encountered and how they had overcome them. And all the while they were educating others.
The president, Ralph Nilson, came by and spent almost 20 minutes chatting with the students about their projects. The students were absolutely thrilled to be discussing how valuable the hands-on component of this course was to their education and the president was just as thrilled to learn about it.