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Students design 3D brain models to learn and teach neuroanatomy

Dr. Erika Fanselow teaches a small honors Neuroanatomy class, and has long seen her students struggle to form a complete picture of the architecture of the brain from the 2D representations they study of the many structures within the brain. These distinct structures are woven and interlocked together into an architecture that is critical for the function of the brain. And an intimate familiarity with how these structures connect is particularly critical for doctors – which most of Fanselow’s students aspire to be – because symptoms pointing to defects in several distinct brain structures could identify the location of a tumor, for example, if the doctor knows that those structures all touch in a particular place.

When Fanselow learned about 3D modeling and printing, she realized that this was the technology she needed to be able to teach her students to visualize  the 3D architecture of the brain. But instead of simply 3D printing models of interconnecting brain structures to show her students, she wanted them to be able to both 1) draw relationships between their new 3D models and the 2D representations and knowledge they have of the brain’s structures, and 2) work with the capabilities and limitations of 3D printing to actually create 3D-printed models, which she sees as having the capacity to transform personalized medicine and thus be a large part of these future doctors’ careers.

So, Fanselow introduced a new lesson into her class: working in small groups, students choose a structure or cluster of structures in the brain, take measurements from various 2D representations and brain cross-sections, and turn these data into virtual 3D models using Tinkercad 3D modeling software. Open Lab staff teach the class the basics of modeling in Tinkercad, and then work with Fanselow and the students to guide them through the intricacies and caveats of 3D printing as they turn their virtual 3D models into physical ones.

Fanselow says it’s stunning to see the immediate look of comprehension when a student looks at their model and literally sees how the brain structures they’ve been learning about fit together. Additionally, the first model the students print serves as a prototype and allows Fanselow to better understand her students’ conceptions and misconceptions about these structures, and provide feedback. The students then incorporate this feedback into their final printed models, which they use to discuss the structures and their learning process with their classmates.

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