Lessons Learned: 3-D modeling easily made the transition online

The University Times today begins a series of “Lessons Learned” — what faculty members have already discovered during the transformation of Pitt’s in-person classes to the online world: lessons they’ve gleaned from what worked and sometimes from what didn’t.


A course centered on creating 3-D models of the human brain might be stymied by the necessity of moving online.

But neuroscience faculty member Erika Fanselow’s Functional Neuroanatomy Honors Practicum, in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, had a surprisingly easy switch to an online-only existence in the spring. In fact, she says, the forced changes actually resulted in improvements to class projects in the final few weeks.

Normally, groups of three to four students in Fanselow’s class create, and print, models of specific brain structures, and Fanselow checks them in person.

“I was concerned about moving that online,” she says. The software students use to construct the 3-D models was already in the cloud, so their modeling continued without a hitch.

But when it came time to view each model, she found that the students realized they were going to get extra scrutiny: their models could still be viewed from every angle, but instead of being merely eyeballed they would be put under the microscope of online magnification. And they realized they had to be prepared to speak a bit more formally about their models, when called upon in a Zoom meeting.

“It turned out working with the 3-D, online, worked just as well, or even better,” says Fanselow. “I think they were a little more organized, a little more ready to present their material.”

Moving online enhanced the class’s final project as well, she says. Here, the students usually work in small groups too, using a medical case study to diagnose a patient with symptoms that may be a result of a functional neuroanatomy issue, and then present their findings in class.

Fanselow worried that such a task might turn out to feel stilted in Zoom, so she reversed course, assigning each group a specific disorder and asking them to create their own case study for another group to solve. Working backward in this manner turned out to be “a very active problem-solving process,” she says.

The final addition to her course was something Fanselow was least confident about, she says. In an era when undergraduate students generally shun email in favor of texting or other online modes, she undertook very frequent communication to let them know what to expect in the course.

“I emailed them nearly daily, and I got feedback from students that this was very reassuring,” she says. “I think this gave them some structure that otherwise they had to get online. I was surprised to the degree to which students responded to that. I thought it might be overkill, and it wasn’t.”

Her almost daily emails included a link to an unrequired, usually non-scientific article related to neuroscience and, ideally, that week’s course topic. The message: “‘This is to get your mind off of all the COVID craziness.’ Students told me again and again that they appreciated having something to think about.”

She might not continue this practice in the fall, even if courses are online, if the daily COVID-19 news doesn’t seem as intense. But she was heartened to see students realize her concern for how they were handling life outside of class. “It formed a connection,” she says.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.