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‘More Impact’ Than a Textbook : Teacher Plans to Use Cadaver in High School

Times Staff Writer

A high school science teacher here, eager to “enhance” his human physiology courses and provide his students with “an experience they’ll never forget,” plans to use a cadaver as an instructional tool beginning next fall.

Jan Mongoven said that using the cadaver for demonstration and dissection purposes in his elective courses will “vastly increase” what students already learn about anatomy and the body systems from textbooks and diagrams.

“There’s only so much you can gather from pictures,” said Mongoven, a popular instructor who has taught at San Marcos High School for 12 years. “It’s like taking auto shop and never getting to work on a car. In physiology, a real-life, hands-on experience will simply make more of an impact on a student.”

But not everyone in this city tucked in the hills between Vista and Escondido shares Mongoven’s enthusiasm.

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Mike Preston, a member of the San Marcos Unified School District Board of Trustees, said he finds the plan to obtain a cadaver from the UC San Diego Medical School and invite students to dissect it “distasteful, repulsive and repugnant.”

“I have horrible visions of the pranks that might be played--like cadavers being kidnaped and ending up on front lawns,” Preston said. “Another thing is, these cadavers are local people. This may sound farfetched, but what if a kid goes in there and it’s his grandmother up on the table?”

Catherine Sumner, who has two children at San Marcos High, echoed Preston’s concerns: “I’m all for progressive education, but do kids that age really need to be exposed to dead bodies? I don’t think so.”

Such protests notwithstanding, the San Marcos Board of Trustees gave Mongoven the green light Monday night to go ahead with the project. Teaching supplies do not normally require board approval, but district Supt. William Streshly said he sought the trustees’ endorsement of the proposal because of the “sensitivities surrounding the human body.”

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Next, Mongoven’s request for a cadaver will be screened by officials with the medical school’s Body Donation Program, which was established in 1980 to provide specimens not needed at UCSD to other area colleges and an occasional high school.

John Sykes, curator of the UCSD program, said officials will review Mongoven’s request to “determine if it is a sound program, with a qualified instructor and adequate security for the specimen.” There is a $205 fee to cover costs of embalming, storage and delivery, Sykes said.

If Mongoven--who said he has never worked with cadavers--passes the test, he will become the first high school instructor in San Diego County to use a UCSD specimen in the classroom, Sykes said. Only two other high schools, one in Mission Viejo and the other in Agoura, north of Los Angeles, have obtained bodies from UCSD. Both have established “very successful programs,” Sykes said.

Mongoven said he decided in April to use cadavers in the classroom after reading an article about their use at Agoura High School.

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“I called the teacher up there, and he said it’s been a thoroughly positive experience,” Mongoven said. “He’s got three cadavers now and lots of community involvement. A physician volunteers to come in and make cuts for the class, and a hospital has donated X-ray equipment and some dissecting instruments.”

Mongoven would like to see the San Marcos program develop along the same lines. Already, he said, a local mortuary has offered to donate bags to store the cadaver.

When not in use, the cadaver would be kept on its dissecting table in a locked storage room. It would be available only for physiology and genetics courses, which generally are taken by juniors and seniors who “are very serious about their science,” Principal Wes Walsvick said.

“These are highly motivated students who choose to enroll in very demanding courses,” Walsvick said. “Under Mr. Mongoven’s superb supervision, I think this will be a tremendous resource for our students and a catalyst for many to go on with studies in the medical field.”

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In the past, Mongoven has had his pupils dissect fetal pigs to learn about anatomy and the workings of the respiratory, digestive and other body systems.

“It’s been a valuable instructional device, but the comparisons go only so far,” Mongoven said. “Often, a student will have a relative with gall bladder disease. With a cadaver at hand, I can show students exactly what the gall bladder looks like and where it’s located, and they’ll never forget it.”

Mongoven stressed that the “whole thing will be handled with maturity and dignity, out of respect for the deceased.”

“What really bothers me is a lot of parents seem worried that the cadaver will be in the hands of some crazed, old science teacher,” Mongoven said. “I’m not crazed. I’m just a normal guy with two kids and a wife who wants to give students the very best class possible.”

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