Digital Dissection May Be Heading to an Anatomy Class Near You

By Brenda Iasevoli — March 28, 2018 3 min read
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Students at a New Jersey high school can virtually dissect the human body, thanks to the purchase of cutting edge technology that is typically available only to medical students.

Cadaver dissection is the traditional way that medical students have learned about the human body’s parts and functions. But the practice is expensive and study cadavers aren’t easy to come by. The virtual dissection table has solved these problems for universities and now it’s a way for high schools to provide aspiring doctors with as real an experience with the body and its workings as they can get.

Hunterdon County Vocational School District’s Biomedical Sciences Academy in New Jersey recently bought a digital dissection table with an $80,000 grant from the state’s department of education. The high school is one of only two in the state to own the sophisticated devices, according to, the media outlet that first reported on Hunterdon’s purchase. Currently, such tables are in 50 high schools in the U.S. California’s Long Beach Unified School District was the first district to incorporate the digital dissection tables into anatomy lessons.

The 6-foot-long dissection table allows anatomy students to get a close look at every muscle in the human body on a touch-screen that functions much like an iPad. With a swipe of the fingers, students can peel away skin, muscle, and bones to reveal internal organs. Using their finger like a scalpel, students can “cut” anywhere on the body to examine a part’s insides. A cut of the heart, for instance, reveals how blood flows through arteries and veins.

“If these images are disturbing to you, then we did a good job,” said Anatomage CEO Jack Choi to chuckles, at a Ted Talk demonstration of the table. (See video below.) Anatomage is the 3D medical technology company that designed the digital dissection table with Paul Brown, consulting associate professor in the division of anatomy at Stanford University.

Academy freshman Damiano Palladino, who plans to study oncology after graduation, appeared sold on the new technology. “It’s super cool. We get to see the nervous systems and different layers of the body as if the person was laying right in front of us,” he told “The virtual aspect is a lot better than just Googling it online.”

While the study of anatomy has traditionally depended on hands-on cutting into actual flesh to get a look inside the workings of humans and animals, common dissections, of frogs for instance, have gone digital in schools across the country.

Replacing hands-on dissection with technology has not come without controversy. Some biology teachers contend that hands-on dissections are the best way to connect students to what they are learning and let them know early on if they can handle a career in the medical field.

Others argue that virtual dissections are a just as good, if not better, way to teach biology and anatomy. That they save money, shield students from potentially dangerous chemicals and instruments, and don’t involve sacrificing animals for science are added bonuses.

As far as operating on human cadavers is concerned, researchers at Michigan State University have found that digital dissection isn’t quite as good as the real thing. Their findings are based on a semester-long undergraduate anatomy course with one group of students studying an actual cadaver, while another group studied simulations. Both groups were tested on a cadaver. The test asked them to identify parts of the body and explain how they worked. Students who learned on the cadaver scored on average about 16 percent higher than those who learned on the virtual system in identifying parts of the body and about 11 percent higher at explaining how the parts worked.

“When it comes to learning actual— rather than simulated— human anatomy, the digital representations, even with all of their additional affordances, did not work as well as the cadaver,” said Cary Roseth, an associate professor of educational psychology and one of the study’s authors.

Jessica Cangelosi-Hade, the Hunterdon County vocational district’s director of curriculum and academies, said the goal in acquiring the latest technology is to keep programs updated, so that the school can continue to attract top students and provide them with the best preparation for career and college.

What is your stance on virtual over hands-on dissections in class?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.