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Veterinary medicine

PferD3: A virtual guide to the horse

München, 11/07/2014

Students of veterinary medicine at LMU have developed a suite of educational software that helps trainee vets to learn the ins-and-outs of equine anatomy. The new program will be introduced to the public at the 14. Munich Science Days.

The Chairs of Food Safety, Anatomy, Pathology and Surgery, together with the Computer Support Group all contributed to the development of the new software.

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Complex, high-resolution, three-dimensional graphics are an absolute must for ardent gamers – so much so that they have become an indispensable component of today’s gaming programs. They are much less familiar to most budding veterinary surgeons, but that is about to change. For students at LMU’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine are now engaged in programming a new electronic tutorial with the aid of Blender, an open-source software which is particularly popular with game designers. The new program, PferD3 (“HorsE3”), will not only enable their fellow-students to explore and understand the disposition and structure of the internal organs of the horse in virtual space, but also to simulate the dissection and complete dismemberment of the animal. “The techniques required are demonstrated in three dimensions, and these displays are complemented by video clips, text files or histological sections,” says Chris van der Meijden, a consultant veterinarian and IT specialist, who heads the Faculty’s Computer Support Group. He coordinates the project, in which 11 students, with assistance from the Chairs of Food Safety, Anatomy and Pathology, are actively involved. The Chair of Animal Surgery also made a crucial contribution to the project by performing computer tomography on real equine organs and providing the resulting scans to the student designers. “We then processed and reformatted the files so that the program could display them in three-dimensional form,” van der Meijden explains.

A project with a two-fold learning effect

Of course, the program cannot substitute for the learning experience afforded by the encounter with real animals and real tissues. But modern animal welfare legislation severely restricts the availability of suitable material, and veterinary students now have few opportunities to carry out dissections. A set of software that effectively compensates for this lack therefore meets an urgent need, and provides students with a learning tool that can be consulted at any time to refresh one’s grasp of the finer points.

The development of PferD3, the first version of which is now online, has benefited from financial support from the program Lehre@LMU, whose goal is to enhance the quality of teaching at the University. And the design project serves that purpose in at least two respects. It future users will profit from the learning effect provided by the finished product, and the students involved in its conception and realization have learned a great deal from the work itself. “The project delves into a range of very interesting thematic areas, which can only be dealt with in a more superficial fashion in lectures,” says Carina Eggers, who helped to develop PferD3. She is particularly interested in working with different media, as she believes that their potential significance for veterinary medicine is currently underestimated. For her fellow-student Jakob Stute, the central elements of the project were the chance to explore unfamiliar areas of the subject and interact closely with other sections of the Faculty – and the lessons in time management: “There is so much to learn and absorb in veterinary medicine that pressure on time can become very intense at certain stages in the course. But this pressure, together with the demands made by this complex project, have taught me to organize my time effectively, and I can now cope better with stressful situations,” he says.

Picking up know-how for presentations

So both Eggers and Stute have learned a lot from their participation in the project – such as to decide on defined goals in group discussions and how to go about achieving them in the most effective manner.

There is still a lot of work to be done on PferD3. The whole area of virtual microscopy needs further attention, but this module will be up and running in the coming year. The catalog of problems for the multiple-choice quiz is not yet complete, but the basic idea and the layout is already there. In the meantime, 90% of the organ scans have been integrated in the program and are now accessible. At all events, PferD3 is sufficiently far advanced for it to be introduced to the public at the Munich Science Days[GC2] from 8.-10. November. This will be an especially exciting occasion for Carina Eggers: “I have been asked to demonstrate the Blender software, together with our electronic tutorial, to the public in a 90-minute workshop.”

“In the course of the project the students have also learned how to present the results of their work to a knowledgeable audience. They have already given a series of lectures on the project, and they have now prepared a set of poster presentations for the poster sessions during the Science Days. These are skills that all academic researchers must acquire.” According to Chris van der Meijden, a clear trend towards “blended learning” has begun to emerge in veterinary medicine. This explains why the Faculty is so interested in probing ways of combining virtual learning programs with work on real, live animals. For instance, PferD3, when complete, can easily be adapted to include the anatomy of other species. Then there is the hands-on horse model, with which students can bone up on routine techniques, such as the rectal examination – or the models of the pig’s head, which are used to teach the correct way to immobilize the animal before administering an injection. “Teaching programs and teaching methods are in constant flux,” van der Meijden remarks – and he should know. After all, his own Faculty is a trendsetter in this regard.