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Illinois Vet College Enhances Anatomy Class with Painted Skulls

The painted skulls are used in conjunction with a color key that can be used consistently across species.

The painted skulls are used in conjunction with a color key that can be used consistently across species.

Irenka Carney, University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

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The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine has found that using painted skulls as a teaching tool can help students better learn anatomy.

Ashley Lynch, one of the instructional laboratory specialists, came up with the idea of painting the skulls in 2014 after one student wrote, “I hate anatomy,” on the zygomatic arch of a canine skull.

“The skull anatomy section is intense,” said Lynch, who assists 130 first-year veterinary students in the anatomy course. “They have about 80 pages on skull anatomy to memorize in four weeks. Identifying the parts on actual skulls solely by reviewing the two-dimensional images is very difficult.”

Despite various attempts, they were unable to remove the graffiti, the university reported.

“The only solution we could come up with was to cover over the writing with white paint,” Lynch said. “Then I got an idea. I used leftover model paint to make the individual bones of the skull different colors.”

When the students saw the painted skull, they all wanted to use it because it was so helpful for distinguishing the bones, according to the university.

Seeing the painted skull’s success, Lynch decided to paint cow and horse skulls for the students.

“The textbook pictures do a good job representing the anatomy of the cat and dog skulls,” Lynch said. “Aspects of the cow and especially the horse skull are harder to translate between the illustrations and the real skull.”

She heard students exclaim, “I finally understand!”

Ashley Lynch

Irenka Carney, University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Ashley Lynch came up with the idea of painting the skulls after one student wrote, “I hate anatomy,” on the zygomatic arch of a canine skull. She found that using the painted skulls as a teaching tool helped students better learn anatomy.

Lynch next devised a color key to improve the usefulness of the skulls. The system can be applied across species. For example, the zygomatic bone will be lime green on any animal skull.

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Since the initial approach, Lynch has come up with various improvements. For instance, she now only paints one half of the skull to identify the bones. The other half she leaves mostly bare, with colored rings around each kind of opening on the skull, the university noted.

“Knowing the openings is especially important because they relate to the nerves and blood vessels,” Lynch said. “How blood vessels get to the eyes, ears, and nose and how nerves travel from the nose to the brain—all this information has very important applications in veterinary practice, for example, in accurately assessing a facial injury on an animal.”

In the past two years, Lynch has painted 13 skulls—each one taking about 16 hours to paint.

Lynch has also started experimenting with painting limb bones to help demonstrate anatomy and joint relationships.

“We know that students don’t all learn things the same way,” Lynch said. “I hope this is a small step toward empowering all kinds of learners.”

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