FLCC pilots holography as a learning tool

Finger Lakes Community College is part of a small group of institutions working with Case Western Reserve University to pilot an emerging technology called mixed reality and evaluate its ability to help students learn human anatomy.

Student wearing visor
Finger Lakes Community College student Jacob Vivlamore of Canandaigua uses the HoloLens visor and HoloAnatomy software to view a hologram in his anatomy and physiology class. (Photo illustration by William Pealer)

Last fall, students in FLCC anatomy and physiology classes began using Microsoft HoloLens with the HoloAnatomy program that Case Western Reserve developed to view three-dimensional images of human organs individually or as part of body systems.

The university’s software allows the HoloLens to project a holographic image that everyone wearing the visors – students and their instructor – can see. The instructor can rotate the image, zoom in on a particular section or zoom out to show the entire class how systems function and interconnect.

FLCC joined the project after Christine Parker, associate professor of biology, learned about the HoloLens technology and the program for teaching anatomy, which Case Western Reserve was working to develop as part of the university’s Health Education Campus project with Cleveland Clinic.

The FLCC Forward strategic plan calls on the college to explore new ideas in technology, leadership, learning and professional development to foster greater student engagement.

She reached out to CWRU, which invited her to join the pilot study. FLCC is among a small group of colleges and universities, and the only community college, working with CWRU.

Parker traveled to Cleveland to get a first-hand look at the technology and was astounded by the potential to help students grasp course material.

“I immediately thought that this ability to take structures of the human body, often viewed and studied in 2D, and put them into a vivid 3D experience, could revolutionize the way we teach anatomy,” Parker said.

She introduced a single class to the technology in fall 2018, then expanded it to 45 students in spring 2019.

FLCC faculty compared student performance on lab exams and final grades between classes using technology and traditional classes, in which students use textbooks and plastic models. Early results show students using the new tool score higher in their lab exams.

“I thought it was so cool, so futuristic,” said Renee Burns of Shortsville, who took anatomy and physiology at FLCC in fall 2018. She graduated this year and has transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology with plans to become a medical interpreter in American Sign Language.

“It’s like a hologram you would see in a movie,” she added. In viewing, for example, a skeleton or an individual bone or muscle, “You feel like you can reach out and touch it. It was a very visual experience. You look at the image from any angle. You can look at it upside down.”

The visor took some getting used to and could get heavy after 30 minutes or more, she said.

Still, Burns said, “I feel so grateful that I was able to participate in the study. I do think it added to that experience, where I could get a deeper dive into the material.”

She added that she was impressed with how closely FLCC President Robert Nye followed the project, noting that he “came upstairs several times to see how it was going.”

Nye said he was excited to see how technology could make a difference for students.

“We are proud of Professor Parker’s initiative and dedication to the continual improvement of the student experience,” he said. “HoloAnatomy is another tool that we hope will make science more accessible and engaging for our students.”

Rhiannon Miller of Palmyra took anatomy and physiology as part of her work toward a nutrition degree. She thinks the ability to view holograms complements but does not replace plastic models typically used to help students learn the bones, muscles and organs. “I think that it improved my grade, having the different ways of learning,” she said.

Like other students, she had to adjust to the new technology. “It was kind of mind-blowing at first, kind of overwhelming to your eyes,” she said.

While her class only used HoloAnatomy for bones and muscles, she thinks it would be particularly useful in understanding the nervous and endocrine systems, which are much harder to visualize. Miller added that the technology has potential beyond teaching anatomy. “I’m excited for what can come with it. I can see how it can be helpful in other areas.”​

This fall 69 students are using HoloAnatomy at FLCC. Parker has fine-tuned her approach by adding small group trainings on the devices and making physical changes to the classroom to help facilitate the student experience. The college is expanding use of the technology into additional human anatomy and physiology courses.

“Case Western Reserve University has been absolutely amazing to work with,” she said. “The support and respect they have continually given us has been phenomenal.”

Author: Lenore Friend

Lenore Friend is the community affairs director at FLCC and the college's liaison with Finger Lakes TV. Contact her at (585) 785-1623 or Lenore.Friend@flcc.edu.