Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

'Animal Stack': a computer simulated animal dissection

Roberta Bencini
Werner S. Hennig
Animal Science, Faculty of Agriculture
The University of Western Australia
'Animal stack' is an interactive computer simulated animal dissection aimed at facilitating independent student learning.

In the Faculty of Agriculture, second year students learn the anatomy and physiology of animals. These subjects can be learned only by achieving a deep understanding of the relationship between structure and function. However, students have difficulties learning these subjects from formal lectures because they cannot observe organs and tissues directly to achieve this understanding of the relationship between form and function. Students could achieve this understanding if they could dissect animals in their own time and at their own pace. This is not possible with real animals, but it can be achieved with a simulated animal.

To address this problem we have developed 'Animal Stack', an interactive computer simulation that allows students to learn independently the relationship between the structure and function of animals, by interacting with simulated animals while having control of their learning strategy. This learning tool can be used under supervision or for independent study.

The problem

A major objective for second year Agriculture students is to learn the anatomy and physiology of animals. This is essential to understand management strategies that ensure the welfare and productivity of domestic animals. Anatomy and physiology can be learned only by understanding the relationship between the structure of organs and their function. For instance, it is only by understanding what the heart of an animal has to do, that it becomes obvious why it is structured the way it is. However, students experience difficulties in learning the anatomy and physiology of animals from formal lectures as in lectures they cannot observe organs and tissues directly to understand in sufficient depth the relationship between form and function.

To address this problem we have introduced a system in which students learn independently physiology topics of their choice and present them to their colleagues. Later, students dissect a whole sheep under the supervision of academic staff. This dissection takes 4 or 5 hours, so that students can take their time to understand the relationship between the structure and function of the various organs. Projecting movies or slides could not achieve the same educational outcome: it would be impossible to ask students to watch a 4 hour movie showing the dissection of a sheep without loosing interest. Also, movies do not allow students to learn at their own pace and to examine the appearance, and three-dimensional structure of organs and their spatial relationship to other organs.

Students find dissection classes essential to achieve a deep understanding of the relationship between the structure and function of the various organs. In turn, this deep understanding is essential to avoid the rote learning and exam regurgitation of anatomical particulars. However, the talks given by their colleagues are similar to formal lectures, and students find them difficult to follow. A way that students could achieve a deeper understanding of the structure and function of animals would be if they could dissect animals as they study the theory. This could never be achieved with real animals because dissections using domestic animals are costly and they cannot be conducted on some of our native animals. Also some students cannot undertake animal dissections for personal reasons.

The solution: 'Animal Stack'

To address this educational problem we have developed 'Animal Stack', an interactive computer simulation that enables students to interact with a simulated animal to understand how it functions.

'Animal Stack' enables students to become independent learners, which is the basic tenet in adult education to achieve motivation and deep learning (Knowles 1984). Students also have control of their learning strategy, which increases motivation and improves learning outcomes (Laurillard 1988). Interactive computer learning also brings about individualisation and motivation both of which facilitate students' learning (Bork 1987).

'Animal Stack' differs from other computer assisted dissections because it explores specifically the link between structure and function. We are convinced that only by understanding the link between anatomy and physiology it is possible to learn both of them. Other commercially avaliable packages deal with either anatomy of physiology without linking the two.

How does it work?

'Animal stack' was developed on Macintosh computers as they are easy to use and students can interact with the simulation with little supervision as well as use it for private study. We have used the programme HyperCard, as this was an ideal shell to create our simulation. This is because HyperCard has features which allow students to control the learning strategy such as the facility to create maps for orientation and the use of buttons and fields to build a intuitive user interface. In the past, the lack of such features has been identified as a major problem in computer assisted learning (Laurillard 1988). With HyperCard it is also possible to produce animations and include Quick Time movies which are particularly useful to demonstrate the relationship between the structure and function of animals. For instance, the circulation of blood, or the basic theory of the sliding filament for the mechanism of contraction of muscles can be understood much more easily if presented using specific animations.

'Animal Stack' has been structured in a non-linear approach that we believe will give students the expected freedom and stimulate curiosity to explore the animal's body with its structure and functions.

Starting from a picture of the whole animal, the user can 'dissect' it into several layers with the use of special tools such as 'scalpel blade' and 'cross-sections'. Students can also use other tools such as 'organs nomenclature', 'rotations', 'real dissection photographs'. With these tools students are able to reproduce procedures similar to those used in dissection classes. The great advantage here is that students are allowed to go back and retrace their steps, in contrast with real dissections where often students make mistakes that ruin the specimen, and they cannot start again.

Once students dissect the animal to the level of the organs they can choose a special 'finger' tool that allows them to connect the structure to the functions of specific organs when clicked with the mouse. Students then go through a sequence of cards that demonstrate the physiology, micro anatomy and relation to anatomy with coloured pictures, animation and text. Links to related topics are also available at this level. Returning to the anatomy level students then continue to explore the body of the animal.

Student feedback

Some chapters of 'Animal stack' have already been used by second year students for independent learning, and we have also introduced one of them into our practical classes. A survey of these students showed that 96% of them believed that our computer simulation is an excellent study tool. The students found that it helped them to understand important concepts (32% of respondents) by encouraging them to think about how animals function (9% of respondents).

An independent SPOT (Student Perception Of Teaching) survey of these students showed that all (100%) of them believed that 'Animal Stack' helped them to understand important concepts and that it enabled them to be responsible for their own learning. However, only 65% of respondents preferred the computer based learning sessions to traditional tutorials, 10% had no opinion and 25% preferred traditional tutorials. The fact that a quarter of the students prefer traditional tutorials to the use of computers, even though 100% recognised that 'Animal Stack' is an excellent learning tool, indicates that there is some resistance to change and to the use of innovative technology. This means that the introduction of 'Animal Stack' in tertiary courses will need to be accompanied by some coaching in the use (and acceptance) of computers as study tools.

Future developments

According to CAUT guidelines, 'Animal Stack' will be made available to other DEET funded tertiary institutions on a cost recovery basis. Those interested are invited to contact the authors at UWA.

In 1997 we plan to build self assessment modules into 'Animal Stack'. These modules will encourage deep learning approaches by testing students on the link between the structure and function in animals. We believe that by introducing assessment within 'Animal Stack' we can make it an even more effective learning tool.


'Animal Stack' has the potential to solve some of the difficulties related to animal dissections in tertiary institutions. We do not propose to replace dissections completely (even though current trends in animal ethics demands may oblige us to do so), but to give students the opportunity to turn up at dissection classes with a better understanding of the structure and functions of animals.


'Animal Stack' was developed with the support of the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT), The University of Western Australia and the Apple University Development Fund.


Bork (1987). Interaction: Lessons from computer-based learning. In D. Laurillard (ed), Interactive media: working methods and practical applications. Chichester, Ellis Horwood, 28-43.

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston, Gulf Pub. Co.

Laurillard D. (1988). Computers and the emancipation of students: Giving control to the learner. In P. Ramsden (ed), Improving learning: New perspectives. London, Kogan Page, 215-251.

Please cite as: Bencini, R. and Hennig, W. S. (1997). 'Animal Stack': a computer simulated animal dissection. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p31-33. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/bencini.html

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