Jan. 19, 2005 University Park, Pa. -- A simple, instructional Web site in the department of biology is reaching far beyond its intended use as a study aid for the 175-plus anatomy students taking Biology 129 - Human Anatomy, each semester. In December, the site logged 277,593 hits, a feat that has James A. Strauss, assistant professor of anatomy and physiology at University Park, pleased and amazed.
"The goal was to give our anatomy students here basically a photo reference of what they have been doing in the lab," he said. "A lot of them come into class with a whole ream of downloaded pictures from the site. Once students leave the lab, they can't take dissected specimens home with them."
The online tutorial seems to have taken on a life of its own. Strauss credits the search engine Google for making the Web site available to the general public. The site -- http://www.bio.psu.edu/faculty/strauss/anatomy/skel/skeletal.htm -- provides views of muscular, skeletal and gastro-intestinal systems. The Web site backs up the lab work, which includes dissection of cats, sheep brains, sheep hearts and cattle eyes.
"There's two ways to use it," Strauss said. There's photos of almost everything we do in lab. Students can look at it with labels or look at it unlabeled as a self-quiz."
The site, which began six years ago as a project for honors students, took about a year and a half to complete. Plenty of students, ranging from high schoolers to undergraduates, as well as students at Penn State's campuses outside of University Park, along with instructors, have discovered the site and, thanks to the Internet, are sharing it.
Strauss estimates he gets about 50 unsolicited e-mails a semester commenting on the site. Many of the e-mails are instructors requesting permission to add the site to their course resources.
Here's another comment from a student:
"Dear Dr. Strauss, Today was our last lab before spring break and before the first lab test two weeks from now. One of the more computer savvy students discovered and shared with us the wonderful pages you and your students have posted for studying the anatomy of the cat. <http://www.bio.psu.edu/faculty/strauss/anatomy/musc/muscular.htm> I asked her what school "psu" was, and she replied that she didn't care as long as it had what she wanted. A typical reply perhaps from a teenager. I, having many more years behind me than before, think it only fitting that someone thank you for saving us many hours of sketching. Who are we? We are the second semester (of six) students in Vanier College's Animal Health Technology program (a.k.a. vet-tech or veterinary nurse). We range in age from 17 to 58 years old. I am the eldest with the majority falling under 20. I thank you for the help. Since I can't draw to save my soul, I am especially thankful for the excellent photos. I shall think of you and your helpers every time I study all next week. On behalf of the entire class (all 33 of us), I thank you. Jessica-Jean
Strauss said he thinks the site attracts so much traffic because "learning anatomy is inherently a visual process and our photographs offer very comprehensive images of the usual specimens and areas that most students will likely study," he said, adding, "best of all, it's free."
Jim Jansen, assistant professor of information science and technology, said the online quiz had good Web marketability and presence. "Aside from the site's internal characteristics, the quiz's visibility on the Web is a big draw for these students," he said. "It is ranked No. 1 with Google for the query "anatomy quiz bones" and probably several other related queries. It loads fast (average load time 0.7 seconds). The quiz is hosted at a popular Web site, namely PSU's, which helps the rankings and traffic. Finally, there are at least 99 other Web sites that directly link to the quiz, which helps rankings and drives traffic to the site."
Indeed, the site has become so successful that Strauss fears all the outside traffic could put a strain on the department's servers and keep the students the site was intended for from being able to access it. Meanwhile Strauss would like to improve the site content by adding updated photos and examine the possibility of additional pages that would provide content linked to his physiology course.
Strauss, who is amazed by the number of hits, thinks the site is good publicity for the University and Department of Biology, and may cause some of the many high school viewers of the site to consider applying to Penn State for their future baccalaureate programs in biology, premedicine or nursing.
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