Hands-on dissecting is ‘highlight’ for EMT students

The assignment was met with a mix of comments.

“All right. It’s buffet time!” teacher Bill Neiss yells, dipping into a cardboard box of freshly truncated pig hearts and lungs. Armed in nitrile gloves, he carefully lifts the pink organs from a plastic-lined cardboard box and distributes them to student teams for analysis.

Surrounded by his students, Bill Neiss inflates pig lungs to show how an endotracheal tube works. Photo by Elyse Kaner
Surrounded by his students, Bill Neiss inflates pig lungs to show how an endotracheal tube works. Photo by Elyse Kaner

The move drew a flurry of responses last week from his 32 emergency medical technician (EMT) students at Spring Lake Park High School.

“Oh! That is awesome!”

“I don’t know how I’m going to get over it!”


It’s dissection time at the high school, the annual capstone assignment for Neiss’ EMT anatomy class for first responders, future doctors, firemen and more.

The faint odor of a meat counter sporadically wafts through the room. Neiss uses pig organs for dissection because their hearts are similar in size to the human heart, he says.

Some of the viscera are coated with thick blackish-red blood clots. Neiss explains the animal did not die from a clot. Rather, when the organs are excised from the body and the blood stops flowing, clots result, drying into what Neiss compares to scum arising from a river that ceases to flow.

Actively engaged

Although some of the students briefly balk on first sight of the organs, the resounding consensus of the 11th- and 12th-graders in Neiss’s EMT class found the culminating anatomy assignment of the second trimester – dissecting a pigs heart and lungs – to be the epitome of a hands on assignment. Student engagement to the nth degree.

It’s one of the student highlights of the year, Neiss says.

The real-life dissection (thorax region) brings a three-dimensional look into anatomy parts the students previously had only seen on paper or in a photo. The dissection allows them to poke, prod and discover the organs and where they’re connected.

As part of the assignment, students are asked to identify structures – bicuspid valve, tricuspid valve, aortic semi-lunar valve and mitral valve, to name a few. They need to know dorsal from ventral.

“They love it,” Neiss says.

Neiss contrasts the hands-on assignment to the difference between taking a drivers education course and practicing driving in a parking lot to the real experience of taking the car out on the road for a run.

The dissection gives students a look into what a slit leg, for instance, would look like rather than by examining a cadaver, said Jason Graft, EMT paraprofessional.

“That’s what I really like about this,” he said. “Students get to see much closer what healthy tissue looks like.”

Neiss, who has been assigning the dissection unit for about 15 years, said he receives many emails from former students telling him the class gave them a head start in college.

“Hopefully, some kid will become a surgeon because of this or reinforce their desire for medicine,” Neiss says.

So far, he’s aware of about a half-dozen of his students who have gone on to become physicians.

Better than on paper

Neiss gathers his students, suited up in blue surgical gowns and gloves, around a table. There, he inserts an inflating device into a pig’s lungs. The lungs appear to be breathing.

“That’s what an endotracheal tube does,” Neiss says.

Poised with scalpel, scissors and a probe, teammates return to their tables and start dissecting duties.

Levi Nordine, J. P. LaBelle and Adam Nelson examine the innards in the two-hour exercise.

They follow the assignment’s instructions as they cut into the heart.

Levi pokes his gloved-finger into the left ventricle.

“How does it feel?” LaBelle asks.

“It feels pretty dense because there’s not much space in there,” Nordine replies.

They continue probing, searching for the mitral valve as they enter through the left atrium.

This is the first time LaBelle has dissected freshly extracted pig organs. He did analyze a pig fetus in seventh grade, but the EMT assignment delves deeper into dissection, he says.

“I think it’s fantastic!” LaBelle said about the opportunity to study the porcine parts. “I just like the idea of trying things in real life better than on paper.”

Student Tim Pehoski was particularly pleased with the unit.

“This is the coolest thing ever,” he said. “Some people are taking math tests right now and we’re cutting hearts open.”

“It’s so much more realistic,” said Sydney Loomis, Pehoski’s lab partner. “Isn’t it awesome?”

Partner Luke Drake said the assignment has taught him the size of hearts and lungs. And what a blood clot looks like.

Drake sums it up in a few words.

“Nobody experiences this!” he said, upon discovering a tongue attached to his specimen.

Alie Peterson was equally intrigued with the assignment.

“It shows us real stuff, instead of learning on paper,” she said. “It’s more hands on. It’s an eye-opener for what the insides of our hearts and lungs look like.”

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]