The commodification of 3D printing technology is transforming many areas of work, from engineering to virology. When the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM) offered me an anatomy professorship this past year, I asked for a 3D printer to pursue my research in paleoanthropology. But I’ve also been thinking about how to use this groovy technology in my role as an anatomy educator. Here are my current thoughts on 3D printing in anatomy education, and an outline of how I plan to deploy 3D printed anatomical models at ARCOM and in the surrounding communities.
These ideas are still developing so I’d love to hear your feedback – tweet me at @throckman or email me – throckmorton dot z at gmail.
I think 3D printing is useful for anatomy teaching in the following ways:
1. Creating anatomical models that are not available for sale. The clitoris model is a great example. I absolutely have to credit the creator of this model, Odile Fillod and my friends/colleagues Prof. Julienne Rutherford and Prof. Gwen Robbins-Schug for talking about how they’re using the 3D-printed clitoris model in their own classrooms. Neither are anatomy professors, so this highlights the utility of interdisciplinary communication. The go-to article on clitoris anatomy, O’Connell, Sanjeevan, and Hutson’s 2005 “Anatomy of the clitoris,” argued that anatomy textbooks inadequately illustrate the clitoris in diagrams and figures. They specifically criticized most textbook depictions of clitoral anatomy as not representing the 3D morphology. Printed diagrams of anatomical structures always by definition entail data loss in the reduction of a 3D structure to a 2D diagram, but 3D models do not suffer from this problem.
2. Creating anatomical models that reflect real-life variability. In my opinion, the most important part of teaching anatomy is teaching variation – normal and abnormal/pathological variation. Whichever structure you choose, if you buy commercially available models, then you’re getting either an artist’s rendition or a copy of one specific person’s anatomy. You can’t currently buy a set of, for example, hearts that show the impressive variation of coronary vessels. Before 3D printing, you could only preserve hearts in jars. That requires permission from the donors to store their organs, storage of biohazardous materials, and is likely not feasible in primary and secondary schools. We are planning to 3D scan human hearts and then 3D print them to have a collection of clean, easily comparable organs that can be used year after year. Eventually, this will highlight inherent human anatomical variation even better than the 21 donors we have in our lab.
3. Creating anatomical models can involve active student learning: from 3D scanning, to working with a variety of 3D modeling software applications, to using 3D printers, and then labeling/annotating/painting/preparing the final 3D printed model. Each project produces a tangible product the student can put his/her name on.
4. Most fellow biological anthropologists already recognize the utility of 3D printing models of bones for both research and education. As examples, Prof. Kristina Killgrove has been doing this for years and Prof. Gwen Robbins-Schug has led the creation of a 3D osteology scan database. MorphoSource is an invaluable repository of research-grade bone scans, and I’m proud we made scans of Homo naledi available when we published the first round of Rising Star papers years ago. Biological anthropologists helped pioneer the use of 3D printing in teaching skeletal anatomy. Anatomists need to continue taking those lessons and apply them to soft tissues in researching and teaching soft tissue anatomy more broadly.
Again, I’d love to hear your feedback, including how you’re using 3D printing in teaching anatomy.