Dishing up core concepts for comparative anatomy curricula

Developing a new course is a lot like deciding what to indulge in at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There is too much delicious content to consider and not enough space to put everything on your plate/syllabus. You could try to be conscious of portion control, and cover just the basics, but then you can’t share some of the tastiest tidbits of information! You could pick only your favorites, the subjects you think are the most intriguing. The problem with this strategy is that you don’t give your students an opportunity to figure out what pieces they like best. Or worse, you don’t give them the foundational information they need for their future coursework and careers. When deciding what to make room for, it would be nice to have a game plan, not a strict set of rules per se, but at least and idea of how to organize your options.

Buffet restaurants split their menu into categories, such as having different salad, main course, and dessert areas. Similarly, educators can break up course content into core concepts. The idea of standardizing education is not new, but what is new (for our field at least) is the serious thought going into who gets to decide what the standards are. Drs. Danos, Staab, and Whitenack surveyed members of the Division of Vertebrate Morphology within the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, to determine what experts thought students should know after completing a comparative vertebrate anatomy course. The team sifted through the information and present a set of five core concepts and seven core competencies for teaching comparative anatomy. For the digestif, the authors identify four grand challenges that need to be addressed to make our classrooms, and field in general, more inclusive, diverse, and decolonized.

Figure 1. Visual representation of 5 core concepts (orange inner circle), 7 core competencies (grey outer circle), and 4 grand challenges (blue corners).

5 Core Concepts

A core concept is a “big idea” that provides the foundation and structure to a field. The five core concepts defined by Danos et al., for comparative vertebrate anatomy are shown as the inner circle in figure 1 and are defined as:

  1. Evolution – the diversity we observe in vertebrate anatomy is explained by descent with modification.
  2. Structure & Function – the structures of vertebrates are under heavy selection to match functional demands; but because demands change over time and evolution acts on what already exists, an anatomical component at any given time may not have an optimal structure for its current function.
  3. Morphological Development – vertebrate phenotypes are the result of genotypes executed through a developmental program.
  4. Integration – anatomical structures develop, function, and evolve as integrated modules. These processes occur across space, time, and biological levels of organization.
  5. Human anatomy is a result of vertebrate evolution – as vertebrate animals, human form has been constrained by phylogenetic ancestry.
    Each core concept is accompanied by a set of potential learning objectives and further reading resources for instructors to incorporate the core concepts into lesson plans. For the evolution core concept, authors suggests that students should be able to explain how decent with modification of the axial and appendicular skeletons enabled vertebrate species to transition from living in the water to living on land.

7 core competencies

Unlike a core concept, which is an idea, a core competency is a skill that a student needs to develop and apply within a field to understand, generate, and communicate knowledge. The seven core competencies for comparative vertebrate anatomy are shown as the outer circle in figure 1. Some of these core competencies are directly tied to one or more specific core concepts, such as how tree thinking should be included in the evolution core concept. However, the specifics for how any individual instructor chooses to teach students these skills will vary.

4 grand challenges

The authors conclude their manuscript by addressing the not so savory history of our field and give suggestions and cite resources for instructors to ensure these failings are not ignored and repeated in future generations. The four grand challenges are shown in the corners of figure 1. First, Danos and colleagues make a call to action to expand the worldview of our students by
giving credit to those outside of the white western world for achievements that established vertebrate anatomy as a field of science. The second grand challenge pushes educators and researchers to acknowledge the role that colonization, slavery, and parachute science have played in the curation of the natural history collections that our field is dependent upon. The third grand challenge acknowledges that the methods we use to compare vertebrates have been used to make racist and sexist arguments in the scientific literature. Finally, the fourth grand challenge pushes instructors and vertebrate anatomists to decouple gender and anatomical terms to make our spaces more inclusive for LGBTQ+ individuals

No two instructors are going to teach any course the same way, just like no two people will walk away from a buffet with the exact same meal. Acknowledging the challenges that our field faces, while using core concepts and competencies, will help to ensure that no one walks away from our courses feeling unwelcome or unsatisfied.

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