We caught up with James White, Teaching Fellow in Anatomy, at the University of Birmingham. James works in the Department of Human Anatomy Unit, School of Biomedical Sciences. He has worked there since April 2022. Currently, the department have a BCN3D W50 and BCN3D Epsilon W27.

James told us about the challenges that teaching anatomy brings and how a generous donation from Alumni and the circumstances of the pandemic gave rise to a new way of creating models to enhance students’ learning experiences. 

Read what James had to say below.

Challenge

At the University of Birmingham, medical students are taught anatomy mostly in a classroom setting through small group teaching. There are frequently 13 simultaneous teaching sessions happening in different classrooms at the same time.

Prior to the pandemic, two generous alumni donated a sum of money to be used by the Anatomy department to enhance the teaching experience of our students.  It was decided that a portion of the bequest be used to purchase some 3D printers so that we could start to make small plastic models of our teaching material to enhance the student experience, and give them the opportunity to potentially loan small models to take home and use for revision.  Having researched a number of 3D printers, we felt that the BCN3D printers best met our needs. They would allow us flexibility to print using a variety of filaments, were fully enclosed to meet the University’s H&S policy on using 3D printers, and were professional grade printers.  The features such as the independent dual extrusion, and the smart cabinet for storing filaments were a bonus and helped to really sway our choice.  Due to the pandemic, the printers were not procured until early 2022 as most staff were still operating on a hybrid basis.

With 3D printing, 13 versions of the same anatomical model can be produced and used in each classroom – ensuring an equity in content and quality of teaching across all classrooms. Commercially available anatomical models are quite expensive. An advantage of 3D printing therefore is the relative low cost of producing these models.

Introduction and Application of 3D Printing

The BCN3D printers have a built-in enclosure and HEPA filters. This is essential to their use as they are located in a small space, and there is health and safety guidance in place at University of Birmingham around the use of 3D printers. The enclosure therefore is a key aspect of these particular printers which ensures a safe working environment and permits their use. The two BCN3D printers have two hotends each, so there are four hotends in total. In theory, with four hotends working simultaneously would permit a high throughput of 3D prints. However, recently we were only able to get one hotend to work and successfully produce 3D prints.

The BCN3D printers have a user-friendly touch screen interface which makes processes such as calibration and cleaning of the hotends easier than other 3D printers.

3D printing bones provides an opportunity to produce many models at a low cost. Some of these bone models are sometimes difficult to obtain, or are very costly. Additionally, with the use of large databases of virtual models available on the internet, more customization and choice of models used is permitted.

 There were 52 versions of a skull bone (the ethmoid bone) produced. This bone was chosen for several reasons: (1) It is relatively small; thus, it was predicted it would be less challenging than other bones, (2) Students are less familiar with this bone than other commonly known bones, e.g., humerus, and (3) There are not many models of this bone at the University of Birmingham. It is a difficult bone to obtain.

In each of the 13 classrooms, four ethmoid bone 3D prints were used in a teaching session. There were 16 students in each room, so there was roughly a ratio of four students to one 3D printed bone. Considering that there are 400 students in the cohort, this is impressive. Achieving this quantity of models would not have been feasible with commercially purchased models due to the cost involved. It is estimated that for the smaller bone which was printed, the cost of filament was £0.59 per model, and for the larger bone the cost of filament was £1.47 per model printer. Using 3D printing allowed production of this model that was previously unavailable to students. On top of this it could be produced at a scale where multiple models were present in each room, and therefore each student was able to get more hands-on time with the model than would otherwise not be possible with commercially available models.

Additionally, an experiment was devised to compare how well students learned about the anatomy of bones compared to other learning resources. Students were randomised into groups to learn about two particular bones either through 3D printed bone models, real bones, or virtual reality models. Before and after the learning session they took a test to assess their knowledge. The results of the test showed that student performance was just as good in the 3D printed bone model group as the other two groups. Therefore, 3D printed bone models may be an effective resource to use in teaching in conjunction with other models.

Solutions

3D printed bone models were successfully produced. The quality of the models and their resemblance to the ethmoid bone was satisfactory. A contributing factor to this was the availability of online guides available from BCN3D on how to use the printer. The student who produced the models was a novice, so this is a testament to the user friendliness of the 3D printer.

In advancing our models, there is interest in our department in using 3D scanning. It may be feasible to 3D scan a real bone model within the department and create a virtual model which can be placed on the internet for students to access at home.

It is hoped that more technical and academic staff will learn to use the 3D printers, and find more uses for it in teaching. Hopefully as a department we will become more self-sufficient with the printers and be able to troubleshoot problems with the printers with ease.

Staff wish to print more models to implement in their teaching. An advantage of 3D printing is the customizability and the variety of digital models available on the internet. For example, models with interesting pathologies and diseases can be printed, offering an additional dynamic to the models used in teaching which commercially available models do not usually provide.