The curious case of Marcus Brown

Joint project between the School of Medicine and the College of Education gives middle and high school students a lesson in ultrasound.

No one has ever actually met star high school football player Marcus Brown. That’s because the senior who collapsed on the field in the first game of the season doesn’t actually exist. But by the end of each semester, middle- and high-school students at schools across South Carolina probably know more about this fictional student athlete than their own real-life family members.

Marcus Brown’s medical history is the centerpiece of a teaching module in anatomy and biology courses at 20 schools that participated in a recent 18-month joint venture with the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine and the College of Education. The project gives students an interesting case study that guides them through an exploration of various physiological conditions that might have contributed to the star athlete’s untimely death.

In the process, students learn about genetics and human physiology and explore the possibilities of whether Marcus might have had Marfan Syndrome and a corresponding aortic aneurysm or perhaps a sickle cell trait that compromised his blood flow. They also learn about other simple things that might have contributed to his sudden death such as dehydration and a common heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

As a bonus, the students get to use portable ultrasound devices demonstrated by medical students and faculty from the School of Medicine that allow them to see — perhaps for the first time ever — the real-time functioning of the heart, aorta and other parts of the circulatory system discussed in the Marcus Brown case history.

Stephanie Bailey, a Carolina marine science graduate and science teacher at Airport High School in West Columbia, says incorporating the ultrasound devices into her classroom teaching is especially helpful for addressing an age-old question from students. “Students will sometimes ask, ‘Why do I have to know this?,’ ” she says. “Looking at the heart with an ultrasound shows them the relevance — this isn’t just stuff in a textbook.”

Christine Lotter, a professor in the College of Education at Carolina, worked with Dick Hoppmann, director of the School of Medicine’s Ultrasound Institute, to create the collaboration with the schools and the lessons plans for the teachers. She says the hands-on experiences with ultrasound equipment makes learning more tangible.

“Kids think ultrasound is just for pregnancy, so they’re surprised that it has many more applications than that, and they get excited when they see the heart and carotid arteries at work,” Lotter says. “Incorporating ultrasound into the curriculum also gives teachers increased content knowledge and a more novel way of teaching the content.”

Hoppmann led efforts several years ago as dean of the medical school to infuse ultrasound technology into all four years of medical education at USC. Now he’s seeking more avenues for exposing students of all ages to the technology.

“We’ve had an interest in using it for teaching at all levels for a long time because there’s something very special about looking inside the body with ultrasound. With the excitement that comes with looking inside the body and understanding the body better, we were hoping that a couple of things would happen,” he says. “One would be that not only would they learn the material better in the life sciences, but they would maybe get excited about health care professions.”

Sumter middle school science teacher Jill Madsen says the program has made anatomy and physiology come to life for her seventh-graders and also pointed toward possible careers. “I tell them they can learn to do this. Some of them will be doctors and nurses. And some of them could be ultrasound technicians,” she says.

Hoppmann and Lotter plan to propose an even larger project to the National Science Foundation that would use online and in-class learning to expand the reach of the project. They’ve also explored the possibility of adding computer gaming elements to the learning module, tapping into game facets that tend to keep users engaged and motivated.

“We’re looking at how you keep students going to a higher and higher level of understanding with challenges and surprises and the whole notion of points and badges and leaderboards,” Hoppmann says. “The real key is make the program scalable, so that we can contribute to professional development for teachers across the country and get students interested in their own health and in the health of their communities.”

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