MA Students Get to Examine Skeletons Up Close

Medical Assistant students onsite at Orlando’s Skeletons: Museum of Osteology listen to an introductory presentation on the structure and function of the skeleton, as well as laboratory procedures and pathology. Students in one of the smaller break-out groups examine their skull replica before presenting their findings to the entire class.

Medical Assisting students at the American College for Medical Careers took their learning outside the classroom this November, when they visited Orlando’s Skeletons: Museum of Osteology. This field trip provided an opportunity to take what they had been studying in the textbook and add a hands-on experience that provided new appreciation and understanding of human anatomy and physiology.

MA program instructors Carrie Wilson and Linda Miller accompanied two classes of students to the museum, which features more than 500 skulls. They have brought other groups of students there in the past and had similarly positive experiences. “The museum not only has an impressive collection of animal skulls, but also a good variety of human skulls as well,” Wilson says.

At this point in their coursework for the Medical Assisting program, the students had already studied a chapter on the skeletal and muscular systems. “This trip presented the students with an opportunity to apply what they were learning in a fun and interesting way,” says Wilson.

Hands-on experiences

In addition to its permanent exhibitions, the museum offers topic-driven, experiential classes onsite. On this trip they took part in the onsite “Forensic Pathology” class, which focused on human skulls.

Wilson explains that this lab-based program uses museum-quality replicas of human skulls to explore deviations from the normal or healthy structure and function of the skull. “These reflect any malformation, abnormality, or illness that an individual may have suffered,” she says. An introductory presentation focused on osteology (the structure and function of the skeleton), as well as laboratory procedures and pathology. “The students learned how to tell some of the basic characteristics,” says Wilson, “such as whether the person was male or female, what the bone structures look like before as well as after death, and what the pathology may have been.”

The instructor broke the students up into groups of 4­–6. Each group received a replica of a skull, and received instructions on how to analyze defects that were specific to their particular case. Once they arrived at conclusions, they presented them to the larger group.

“The students were challenged to determine whether their skull belonged to a male or female, whether there was a natural death, and if not, what the cause of death was,” Wilson says. “They also learned about the teeth and how you can use information about them to determine whether the skull belonged to an adult or a child, based on whether teeth have come in or been lost.”

Along the way the instructors helped each group with the project, which lasted about an hour. Wilson said that there was a good degree of teamwork; those groups who were confident they’d already discovered the answers about their own skull were eager to help other groups that were still working.

Interesting exhibits

“The students also loved the exhibit devoted to the pathology of the human skull,” says Wilson. They were particularly interested in the skeletons showing various conditions, including Siamese (conjoined) twins, achondroplasia (a genetic condition that results in dwarfism), and a severe case of scoliosis (curvature of the spine). “The students thought these skeletons were cool because they could really understand the condition once they saw it in three dimensions,” she said.

Wilson said on this trip students also learned about an ancient process called trepanation, a surgery that removes the top of the skull, with the idea that this would release demons that were plaguing the individual. (Today this technique may still be used to relieve the pressure from the buildup of blood after an injury.) This was just one of the many gruesome details that seemed to intrigue the students over the course of the day. Another exhibit that grabbed students’ attention was the area devoted to flesh-eating beetles, which work to clean up animal skeletons by eating away all the matter around the bones.

An unusual museum

Skeletons: Museum of Osteology is one of only two skeleton museums in the United States (the other is in Oklahoma City). Both are owned by the Villemarette family, whose collection of skulls includes some of the rarest species in the world.

On previous field trips Wilson’s students have enjoyed the museum’s “Forensic Osteology: Human Skulls” program, which focuses on a crime lab and the forensic investigation of various types of trauma to the skull. In that class, students learn about skull anatomy and lab procedures, and then break into teams to use a forensic science kit to collect and document evidence. “Students had to determine whether the person experienced a trauma, such as being shot in the head or drowned,” Wilson recalls. “They also investigated whether the person experienced the trauma while still alive or after death,” she said, “based on what they’re able to observe about the healing process.” At the end, each team had made a presentation to the class with their conclusions and then defended their data.

Before leaving the museum, all of the students took part in a scavenger hunt, the results of which were ultimately part of their grade. This required that they explore all aspects of the museum—and visit all 40 exhibits—and find answers to questions, which they marked down and turned in. “It was a very educational day,” Wilson says, “and the students really enjoyed themselves as well as learning a lot in a new context.”

This article is part of the weekly blog of the American College for Medical Careers in Orlando, FL. We’re interested in supporting all our students in striving for their career goals. For more about all of our various professional training programs, visit us online or call 407-738-4488. We also encourage you to schedule a visit to our campus!