Skip to Main Content

Anatomy Teaching Program: Decades of Impactful Community Mentoring

December 19, 2022
by Abigail Roth

Since 1994, students from Hill Regional Career Magnet High School in New Haven—which focuses on business, technology, health, and the sciences— have had the opportunity to study anatomy in the anatomy lab at Yale School of Medicine (YSM). First and second-year YSM student volunteers teach and serve as mentors in the Anatomy Teaching Program (ATP). At least 1,000 Career students, most in their junior year, have participated in ATP since its creation. They have benefited from seeing, touching, and closely examining actual human organs as they study anatomy—and from their engagement with YSM student mentors.

ATP was created through a collaboration between William Stewart, PhD, associate professor of surgery (gross anatomy), and Shirley Neighbors, then a teacher at Career. The hope, Stewart explains, was—and continues to be—that the experience will help Career students learn more about human anatomy, and also instill in them the belief that they could have a career in health care. (Two Career ATP participants have attended Yale School of Medicine.)

ATP quickly grew to about 20 students per year, who participate in 10 to 15 one-hour sessions at Yale. The students are drawn from Career’s anatomy physiology course. In a few years, there was such interest in ATP that a second cohort had to be created. While the Career students do not participate in dissection—the New Haven Board of Education enacted this restriction to avoid the risk of injuries—they can touch organs. Stewart describes how anxious students may start the program standing against the wall in the anatomy lab, far from the dissection tables, but over time move closer to them.

Benefits of hands-on anatomy exposure

When the program was launched, Stewart knew he would not have time to teach it himself, but determined that YSM students could lead the teaching, a structure that has had numerous ancillary benefits for both the Career and YSM students. YSM students created the initial basic anatomy curriculum and revise it each year. Some sessions are didactic classroom lessons, followed by a session in the anatomy lab, providing Career students the opportunity to see in a human body what they learned in the classroom.

“In my first year at YSM, I found it so rewarding to bridge the anatomy I’d seen in textbooks with actual hands-on anatomy exposure with body donors,” says second-year YSM student Leena Surapaneni. Surapaneni, who joined ATP her first year and now is a program leader, “enjoy[s] being able to share what I learned with interested high schoolers.” The Career students’ emotions range from “shy to overtly excited,” she says, “but all of them are interested in learning. It’s always rewarding.”

Each year Stewart meets with the parents of Career students participating in ATP, to tell them about the program—for example, assuring them of the support provided to deal with the emotional weight of the program. Parents often tell Stewart that a reason their child chose Career was because of the opportunity to participate in ATP. Stewart is grateful to the Career teachers he has partnered with over the years: Neighbors, Wendy Decter, MD, and most recently, Edward Brewer.

Near-peer mentorship model

Claudia Merson, Yale’s director of public school partnerships, who was involved with the logistics of ATP when it first launched, emphasizes that ATP was using the near-peer framework—successfully— before it was well-recognized. For example, because they are fairly close in age, the YSM students become role models for the Career students, helping them envision themselves studying for health care careers. Career students often have felt comfortable asking the YSM students questions, such as about their career paths.

Additionally, Merson notes, YSM students learn the anatomy material better by shaping and teaching the curriculum. They also have the opportunity to practice their teaching skills and benefit from learning more about the New Haven community in which they are training to become physicians.

Second-year MD student and ATP leader Gwyneth Maloy knew she wanted to be involved with ATP since learning about it when she interviewed at YSM. She has a strong interest in medical education and, having grown up in New Haven, “wanted to stay connected to the greater New Haven community while at Yale.”

YSM, Maloy states, “has incredible resources—including the opportunity to learn from the body donors in the anatomy lab—which I'm grateful to be able to share with the students.” Maloy had the opportunity to take an anatomy class in high school, which she explains played a large part in her decision to take pre-med classes in college. “The students I've interacted with through the ATP,” Maloy continues, “have been really excited about the course material, so I would love to see them consider careers in science or medicine in the future.”

Maloy says that even though ATP was virtual last year because of COVID-19 restrictions, “I still learned a lot by creating presentations and teaching the material,” but she adds, “returning to in-person sessions this year has definitely been the most rewarding part!”

Merson “can’t sing ATP’s praises enough,” adding that her office tries to model other programs after it. (Yale’s Pathways to Science Program is one example of such a program.) She explains that ATP is the gold standard for how Yale can most effectively offer programs to the New Haven community, because it is 100% sustainable—the school will continue to have access to medical students to teach, and the ability to conduct dissections, thanks to the generosity of body donors. Therefore, YSM will be able to continue sharing the school’s rich anatomy lab and student mentor resources with the New Haven community.

Submitted by Abigail Roth on December 16, 2022