MANKATO, Minn. — When students walked into new biomedical classrooms at East and West high schools this fall, they found a dead body. They spent the school year investigating what disease killed the woman.

The victim, named Anna Garcia, was actually a mannequin borrowed from the schools' nursing assistant labs and her disease and symptoms were made-up by teachers, The Free Press reported.

Only a handful of students successfully identified her cause of death. But nearly 90 percent of the students earned college credits for their efforts.

Grants from community supporters allowed Mankato Area Public Schools to launch a new Project Lead The Way biomedical sciences program this year.

More than 160 students enrolled in the first yearlong class introducing them to human physiology, careers in medicine and some of the technology used in those careers.

Class highlights included dissecting sheep hearts and comparing DNA samples.

Students recently used blood donated by veterinarians to make Wright bloodstains (a technique to prepare blood samples for examination under a microscope). They then examined their stains and identified different types of blood cells.

During a field trip to the Mankato hospital, East High School teacher Sarah Summers said a lab technician couldn't believe they were high school students because they were so knowledgeable about lab techniques and equipment.

East High School junior Ellie Guillemette said she most enjoyed learning about DNA and the components of blood. She said she was most surprised to learn about the far-reaching effects diabetes can have on human bodies.

Many of the lessons were integrated with the challenge to identify Anna Garcia's cause of death. They studied her symptoms, examined her blood, determined her time of death through her body temperature and more.

"It helps kids want to learn," Guillemette said of the challenge that put what they were learning into a real-world scenario.

Anna Garcia had a different fictitious demise in each class period and will have a new variety of ailments next year.

An additional new class will be added each of the coming three years. A "human body systems" class also will be offered next year, and "medical interventions" and "biomedical innovation" classes will be added in the following years.

The classes use the Project Lead The Way curriculum, which provides college credit at many public post-secondary schools to students who pass a final test. This first year 87 percent of students passed the exam, Summers said.

If members of the Mankato's class of 2021 take all four classes, they can graduate with 12 credits at institutions including Minnesota State University and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

The Educare Foundation, Mayo Clinic Health System and Mankato Clinic Foundation donated funding to help the district purchase the equipment and send teachers to training.

"We couldn't do this without our partners," said Kim Mueller, the district's career and college readiness coordinator.

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Free Press.