Skip to Content

Beyond 3-D

Back to Article Listing


Nicole Gordon

DU biology professor introduces virtual reality to anatomy course

News  •
virtual reality in anatomy course

In Professor Barbekka Hurtt's anatomy classroom, two students don glasses and sit in front of a computer monitor. Pointing a stylus at the screen, one student rotates a 3D image of a human eye that appears to float a few inches before her own eyes. Sensors in her glasses track her movements, adjusting the image in real time. She zooms in on the eye and locates the optic nerve, a cable-like grouping of fibers that transmits information from the eye to the brain.

The students are experiencing a giant technological and intellectual leap from the traditional anatomy lesson, in which they may have examined physical models, pored over illustrations, or perhaps performed a dissection.

We can make anatomy more real and applied.

Prof. Barbekka Hurtt, Department of Biological Sciences

Hurtt's innovative teaching method hinges on zSpace, a virtual reality program that allows users to interact with simulated objects. Students choose from more than 13,000 3-D models that they can remove from the screen virtually, rotate, zoom in on, take apart and view inside out. The organs, tissues and other structures in the images appear the same as they do in real life.

"It's an opportunity for students to directly engage and see relationships between different body systems in a way that isn’t always possible when looking at models and dissection," she says. "By helping them visualize structures in their correct orientation, we can make anatomy more real and applied."


Hurtt has been incorporating the technology into her Human Anatomy course for one year since receiving an Olin Faculty Development Grant from DU's Division of Natural Sciences & Mathematics.

"The 3D technology was completely new to me, as I think it was for most of the students in the class,” says Maddie Gelinas, a senior biology major. “However, after you learned the ropes it was quite a beneficial tool and a huge component in making everything that we learned in the class and lab come together in a cohesive manner. It allowed us to take apart the systems that make up the human body piece by piece, enabling us to understand the puzzle that is the human body on a much deeper level."

While virtual reality has been in use as an educational tool for some time, it's not yet an established methodology for teaching anatomy on university campuses. Hurtt and a colleague aim to expand the application beyond anatomy courses, integrating and assessing 3-D technology in other undergraduate science courses. Once they’ve collected more data, they plan to publish a paper on the effectiveness of using the technology as an educational tool. Hurtt also plans to present the research at the International Union of Physiological Sciences: Physiology without Borders conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2017.

It was easy to learn, and I wish that I had it at my house to study from. Kyle Cook, Biology and Psychology Major

Hurtt sees virtual reality as another step toward engaging her students in a multi-modal learning experience that features different teaching methods within one classroom. "The zSpace program is an interactive and engaging way of seeing the information from a different angle," says Kyle Cook, a pre-med biology and psychology major. "It was easy to learn, and I wish that I had it at my house to study from."

Along with the zSpace display, Hurtt’s classroom contains physical models and skeletons traditionally used in anatomy courses. Dissection is also part of the course. Not only do students have an array of learning methods before them, but they also have more opportunities for independent, team and peer learning as part of their educational journey.