Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Chris Hubbard
Chris Hubbard

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

February 9, 2006

NIU program gives high school students
unique insights into human anatomy

DeKalb, Ill. -- The use of cadavers in the study of the human body is a common practice in medical schools and health-related college curriculums. But a unique program using cadavers at Northern Illinois University is providing intensive lessons in human anatomy to a new audience: high school students.

Over a three-month period this semester, more than 350 juniors and seniors from 11 high schools in the region will spend a day or two at NIU studying prosected (pre-dissected) human cadavers.

The program—which has received glowing reviews from teachers and students alike—goes well beyond the average field-trip experience. Students spend at least a full day in the laboratory working their way through assignments tailored for their specific classrooms. Grades count back at the students' hometown schools.

“It's an experience like none other for high school students, and one that we hope will spark interest in pursuing careers in the health professions,” said Chris Hubbard, the NIU professor of biological sciences who teaches anatomy at the university and runs the outreach program for high school students.

“Students at the high schools flock to get into these courses,” he added. “They think it's cool.”

Since it was launched three years ago, enrollment in the NIU short-course in human anatomy has more than doubled. It's so popular that Hubbard has received inquiries from as far away as Houston, Texas. Several area schools hoping to participate this spring had to be turned away.

NIU offers a master's degree program with a specialization in human anatomical science, designed to equip graduates to teach anatomy and physiology at the community college and high school levels. Two graduates of that program came up with the idea of bringing their high school students to NIU, and Hubbard later expanded the outreach effort.

“Our goal was to provide instructional resources that are otherwise unavailable in high schools,” Hubbard said. “We also wanted to give students a unique inquiry-based course that places the responsibility for learning on them. When students learn by doing, the science classroom becomes an exciting challenge.”

High school science teachers see multiple benefits of the program.

“I think it's good exposure for kids that are thinking about going into a health field,” said Sharon Olson, a biology teacher at Wheaton Warrenville South High School. She is planning to bring her Advanced Placement Biology class to NIU for the third consecutive spring.

“In order to spark that future nurse or doctor, oftentimes it is that practical hands-on experience that does it for them,” Olson said. “They come away saying, ‘Yeah, I know this is what I want to do now.' I had students say that last year. I've also had one or two over the years who said, ‘I don't think I could do this.' Either way it's good.”

Deborah Daly, a health occupations teacher at Larkin High School, also is coming back for a third consecutive year. She credits the NIU program as a factor in the growth of her own course for Larkin seniors studying human anatomy for the health care worker. Enrollment has nearly tripled in three years.

“My students look forward to it all year,” said Daly, a former emergency room nurse. “The opportunity has really raised the curriculum up a notch for Larkin.

“It's one thing to show a student models, pictures and diagrams,” she added. “It's quite another thing to view the actual human body and have an opportunity to see it truly as it is. Concepts that are difficult to get across in our regular classroom become so much clearer.”

Prior to the short course, high school teachers attend a lab orientation, view the facilities and then develop a syllabus suitable for their classroom needs. When students arrive, they don protective eyewear and rubber gloves and spend one to two days rotating through five different work stations, including three with cadavers.

“When the students first come in, they're sort of standing there wondering what they've gotten themselves into,” Hubbard said. “But it's not the macabre setting that people might imagine.

“We explain that few students, aside from those pursuing health-related degrees, have an opportunity to learn about the human body in this way,” he added. “We stress that this will be a positive experience and that they must treat the cadavers with respect. When we finally whisk off the sheets, there's not much reaction at all. Once they put on the gloves, the reticence is gone.”

In addition to Hubbard, NIU graduate students and Biology Professor Dan Olson, who directs the anatomy lab, man the laboratory stations, providing introductory information and answering student questions.

“We feel exposing the students to some of the complexities and rigors of a college anatomy course can only be beneficial,” Olson said. “We also introduce teachers to some of our teaching techniques, and we learn from them as well.”

The cadavers are prosected in such a way that organs are removable for study. “If we're examining the respiratory system, for example, we might remove a lung and hand it around,” Hubbard added. “The students are amazed, and when learning about anatomy, it's important for them to not only recognize different organs but also to understand what they feel like.”

The outreach effort was initially started with a small grant from the American Association of Anatomists. High schools are assessed a fee of $35 per student, although the fee will be waived for any student who cannot afford it.

Hubbard said he is looking into ways of possibly expanding the program, but it would require more personnel and more cadavers. The NIU Department of Biological Sciences has maintained its own body donor program since 1990. Like other programs across the country, NIU is experiencing a severe shortage of donors.

“In past years, high school students visiting NIU for the short course have performed dissections, but this year we simply don't have enough bodies,” Hubbard said, adding that NIU programs in physical therapy and physical education both use the cadaver laboratory as well.

“Most of our donations come from people in this region, and they must specifically sign up with us,” he said. More information on the body donation program is available online at


What students learn

Here's a sampling of pre-and post-test questions given to students taking the short course in human anatomy at NIU. 

The most inferior portion of the sternum is the:

  1. body
  2. xiphoid process
  3. manubrium
  4. ala

Which of the following would not be found on lumbar vertebrae?

  1. Dens
  2. Spinous process
  3. Pedicle
  4. Transverse Processes

Which of the following muscles flexes both the arm and forearm?

  1. Brachialis
  2. Coracobrachialis
  3. Biceps brachii
  4. Deltoid

(Answers: B, A and C.)

Participating high schools

  • Andrew (Tinley Park)
  • Carl Sandburg (Orland Park)
  • Larkin (Elgin)
  • Wheaton Warrenville South (Wheaton)
  • Waubonsie Valley (Aurora)
  • Elgin
  • Byron
  • DeKalb
  • Streamwood
  • Marian Catholic (Chicago Heights)
  • Jefferson (Rockford)