Skeletal Voltron: An Activity to Teach Introductory Human Osteology

August 12th, 2015

Possibly, Skeletal Voltron was the highlight of my summer class. I had thought of it back when I first heard that I could be teaching physical anthropology back in January, though it did not come to pass until the summer session.

The goal of Skeletal Voltron is to combine many ideas about teaching anthropology to liven up a topic that can be dry*. Kristina Killgrove (2014) has students draw or mold bones out of clay in order to experience their morphology. Megan McCullen (2010) has her students do a class-wide random mating event to learn the forces of evolution. From great ideas such as these, I thought it would be fun for the whole class to get together and embody a giant human skeleton outside. Each student would be in charge of bone, or part of the skeleton. While I had thought of having the students lay down to form the skeleton, I settled on having each student make a small poster of their assigned bone, held aloft by a stick like a picket sign so that it is visible. Everyone will then present their part and some memorized facts to the rest of the class. Here is what I did with the class to make Skeletal Voltron happen at its inaugural outing.

Preparation

I went shopping for some crafting materials. Big Lots and dollar stores had all of the following for good prices**:

  • 35 14 x 22″ white poster boards: $7
  • 50 sticks (irregular bamboo sticks for gardening): $9
  • 3 sets of markers: $6
  • 1 roll of packing tape: $2

I asked the class to bring their own markers and other art supplies. Some brought extensive collections of markers to share, being non-traditional students with young children.

I also took some time to divide up the skeleton into as many parts as there are students in my class, 28. Some students were responsible for several bones, such as each half of the pelvis. With more students, I could break up each half of the pelvis into two or three parts for students to represent. There are many parts of the skeleton that could be consolidated or expanded to fit the size of the class.

The parts were further organized into sets of four related regions, to fit the teams I had made early in the semester. I wrote each set of four parts on a notecard, producing as many notecards as there were teams (seven). For example, these were the parts grouped for each team:

Skull
Mandible
Cervical vertebrae
Thoracic vertebrae

Left femur
Right femur
Left tibia, fibula, and foot
Right tibia, fibula, and foot

Left humerus
Right humerus
Left radius, ulna, and hand
Right radius, ulna, and hand

Left pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Right pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Lumbar vertebrae
Sacrum and coccyx

Left true ribs
Right true ribs
Left false ribs
Right false ribs

Left scapula and clavicle
Right scapula and clavicle
Manubrium
Sternal body and xiphoid process

Right patella
Left patella
Hyoid bone
Inner ear bones

The Activity

Just before Skeletal Voltron, I gave my lecture on the human skeleton, moving from the cranium inferiorly to the feet. For each bone or part, I had a slide explaining its function and notable features. One side note: I found that asking for stories about breaking bones kept the class interested during this fact-heavy lecture. Lots of stories were told about clavicles, forearms, and ankles!

To start the activity, I showed the following video to set the mood:

Only the older students were familiar with Voltron. Others related the concept to Power Rangers. I had the class form their teams then asked a representative of each group to come up and pick up a notecard with their four skeletal parts. I explained theft of the activity. It seemed like the class wanted an example, so I sketched a quick mockup of a poster on the white board:

{ Ta-daa. }

{ Ta-daa. }

From there, the students had forty-five minutes to make their own sign based on their skeletal part. Some students kept working right up to the stop time, but I think a half-hour would work as well. I patrolled the class to answer questions and keep people working.

{ Hard at work. }

{ Hard at work. }

When time was up, I had the students all go outside with their creations. Since it was an evening class, it was dusk, but there was ample lighting in our part of campus. I indicated generally where the head and feet of Voltron should be on the ground and asked the class to find their place in the skeleton relative to each other. The completed Voltron in place, I started with the student who made a sign for the skull and asked her to explain the main features of that part. I then went down the skeleton, mimicking the earlier lecture, asking each student to talk a little about the bone they worked on. As the activity wrapped up, I had the class pose with their signs in class:

IMG_2438

Conclusion

I heard in the end-of-course comments that the Skeletal Voltron activity was the highlight of the past six weeks. Maybe a third of the students kept their poster-on-a-stick. I had a great time seeing it come to life and I will definitely do it again in future classes.

Update (October 27, 2015)

I have had two more opportunities to do this activity and learned a few valuable lessons to make Skeletal Voltron go as smoothly as possible:

  • 30 minutes is the bare minimum time for devote towards making posters. I had to cut the time available in one of my classes to get caught up with the previous lecture. Some students declared that it was asking a lot to make a poster in a half hour and everyone seemed too rushed.
  • The sticks are actually important! I had not realized that cheap bamboo sticks were a seasonal item in the spring, so by the time my fall classes rolled around, I only had enough sticks for one of my two classes. The sticks were extremely valuable for making the posters visible when standing as a group outside in Voltron formation. The stickless group’s Voltron dissolved as students had to move around to see each other’s posters.

References

Killgrove, K. (2014, February 21). Hyoidkus – 17 syllables about the hyoid [Weblog post]. Powered By Osteons. Retrieved from http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/2014/02/hyoidkus.html

McCullen, M. (2010, September 18). Encouraging college students to mate randomly: teaching population genetics in the classroom [Weblog post]. Great Lakes Ethnohistorian. Retrieved from https://ethnohistorian.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/encouraging-college-students-to-mate-randomly-teaching-population-genetics-in-the-classroom/

 


 

*All puns definitely intended.

**The federal tax deduction for teaching supplies unfortunately does not extend to community college instructors. If it did, I would get at least Target-level supplies. Write your legislators!


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