Dissected brains on a tray, a heart that underwent biopsy surgery, a knee with torn ligaments -- hundreds of area high school students got an in-depth look at human bodies during a cadaver demonstration Saturday at St. Louis University School of Medicine.
"It really gave me a better appreciation and understanding of the human body and the complexity of its design," said Abby Durante, a sophomore at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville.
Durante said you often hear about heart problems and the damage smoking cigarettes cause, but "it was neat to see the effects of it."
Durante and other freshmen and sophomores weren't able to enter the laboratory with real human cadavers as the juniors and seniors were. However, the younger students did experience a cadaver demonstration via a three-dimensional camera system. Ray Vollmer, coordinator of the AIMS (Adventures in Medicine & Science) program at St. Louis University, conducted the inspection of the cadaver for the freshmen and sophomores.
"We could see everything very detailed," said Durante, who described Vollmer's presentation as "very interesting. He made us all more aware of the problems you can have and how to avoid them," she said.
Fellow classmate Stacey Pettit, who's also a sophomore at Althoff, said she enjoyed seeing the difference between a brain from an older person and one from a younger person. "I thought that was cool," she said.
Pettit said the cadaver demonstration gave her a more complete understanding of how the human body works. "If one thing wasn't working, everything else would be in chaos," she said.
The field trip to St. Louis University was part of an annual Saturday Scholars program held each Saturday in February.
Judy Ackermann, of Columbia, started the program two decades ago to give gifted students an opportunity to expand their minds by bringing in expert presenters to share real world experiences.
"It was set up to address the needs of the brightest students," said Ackermann, who is retired. "There's not a lot of opportunity in the community for gifted kids."
Ackermann previously worked for both the St. Clair and Madison Regional Offices of Education in the area of gifted education.
What started with 400 students has grown to more than 960 students from 18 high schools in St. Clair and Madison counties, according to Ackermann.
"To get 965 high school kids out on a Saturday for education is remarkable," Ackermann said.
Assistant Principal Dr. Beth Shackelford at O'Fallon Township High School said the school has participated in the program since it's inception 20 years ago.
"I really think it's a tremendous benefit for those students who are already our high achievers to go above and beyond the classroom," she said. "They get a chance to see all the things they learn in school in a little different way."
Often the presenters are amazed with the questions students ask of them. "The presenters are so impressed with our kids and their knowledge and questions," Shackelford said.
The students give up an hour and a half of their Saturdays in February to participate in the program. The St. Clair County Saturday Scholars program meets Saturday mornings at O'Fallon Township High School, and students in the Madison County group meet Saturday afternoon at Edwardsville Senior High School.
The program is open to all high school students. Ackermann said schools set their own criteria on what students are invited to participate in the program.
Shackelford said the 106 O'Fallon sophomore, juniors and seniors participating this year were selected based on their cumulative grade point average, which had to be 3.87 or higher.
Althoff teacher Lauren Robinson said the top 10 percent of students in all grade levels at Althoff are invited to participate in Saturday Scholars. This year, 27 Althoff students are taking part in the program.
"We want students who are intellectually at the same place so their conversations are at the same levels so they can talk intellectually about the topics," Robinson said.
The topics of the Saturday Scholar lectures vary every year. "We choose topics we think kids can relate to," Ackermann explained. "We are always trying to do current things that would extend the learning."
This year, students have had the opportunity to learn how two local authors co-wrote a novel and about what the Mars Curiosity rover discovered.
On the final Saturday, Feb. 23, Saturday Scholars will learn about student rights from Chief Judge John Baricevic, prosecutor Chet Kelly and Assistant State's Attorney Laura Reppert.
In addition, Ackermann said there will also be a parent workshop on navigating the college admission process on Saturday.
Ackermann and school coordinators come together every spring to discuss how the Saturday Scholar program was received that year and what topics should be covered next year.
Past presenters include astronaut and Belleville native Sandra Magnus, FBI coordinator Clint Van Zandt, St. Louis Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Case and neurologist Dr. John McDonald, who worked with the late actor Christopher Reeve.
Robinson described the Saturday Scholars program as "excellent. These students are getting the opportunity to experience things that many adults haven't," she said. "They have the opportunity to look at so many career fields from so many different angles."
Some past Saturday Scholar students have chosen their future profession based on information experts presented during the program, according to Jack Ackermann, Judy's husband who helps his wife with the program.
"Some of the kids said they would not have chosen their career path if it weren't for this program" Jack Ackermann said.
Durante, who is participating in Saturday Scholars for the first time this year, said the program has provided students "some insight on how to achieve what we want to do."
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or email@example.com.