Paul Cottle wrote on his blog about an ABC news report focused on a push to reduce dissections in schools, replacing them with virtual dissections. There is a Florida connection here. A company is working hard to get its particular dissection program into schools and hooked at least one Florida school district.
Animal-rights groups aside, the company says school systems from all over North America are signing up for its software. The Miami-Dade school system in Florida, it said, has contracted for software for all 85 of its middle schools and high schools.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Virtual dissection programs are a valuable tool in the classroom. Here in Florida students have the option of not doing a dissection and instead doing another activity. Virtual dissections fit that bill nicely. But completely replacing all real dissections is a bad thing.
The ABC story is grossly slanted in favor of the virtual stuff. There is no voice in the story defending real dissections. This is as close as it comes:
“Sure, some kids like the wet lab because they like to mash the frogs’ brains,” said Tracie Treahy of Digital Frog. “Others don’t like it because there’s a kid behind them with a scalpel.”
That’s one heck of an inflammatory quote. I had the good fortune to serve my student teaching internship during the biology classes’ fetal pig dissection week. Not one of the more than 60 kids wanted to mash brains. There were some disinterested students, but even the ones who were initially squeamish couldn’t help but participate as time went on. The students liked the experience because it was engaging and active and interesting!
I’ve experienced a couple of different virtual dissections. Even the best of the virtual can’t come close to the real experience. You miss the feel, the weight, the texture and the opportunity to freely explore and discover and experience. In the virtual dissections you are directed along through steps you can’t really deviate from, and everything is essentially handed to you. But in the real thing, you oftentimes have to put real thought and effort into finding organs that are tucked away in difficult to reach spots. You can explore from all angles and really see how everything is connected, and also see how it isn’t all clean and simple.
The bottom line is effort. You can either be guided along through a thoughtless process of clicking the mouse, or you can actually turn on the brain and explore. We had students who wanted to see things that weren’t on our “scheduled tour” and we let them go for it. Wow, that pig skull is hard to crack open, which isn’t something you would know from a computer simulation.
Virtual stuff is fine as an alternative for students who don’t want to do the dissections. But the two students who elected to use the computer during my time in the classroom were clearly nowhere near as engaged!
One element of the story I really don’t understand is the cost issue. The pigs in my school were paid for with student lab fees. So, I don’t know how eliminating real dissections would save the school any money. I also don’t know what that story is referring to when it says schools have to hire a company to capture live frogs, keep the frogs until dissection time, and then kill them. Where in the world does that happen? In my school, the fetal pigs were ordered from a company that shipped the preserved specimens.
Finally, the part of the story that really got me steamed was:
Most of the 2,600 students taking science courses this year will never go into the life sciences, he [Kevin Stipp] said; for those who do, they’ll get other chances to do dissections in college.
What in the world?!?!?! By that logic, let’s not give students instruments in band because most of them won’t go on to music careers. Let’s not use chemicals in chemistry class because hardly any students will go on to be chemists. What an inane comment! School is where students get to experience this stuff so that they can form opinions that inform their future choices.
Unfortunately, it looks like dissections overall are fading in importance. I remember doing several dissections back in my high school days. Now only one dissection is done in the basic biology courses in my internship school, and the teacher really has to be creative in justifying its inclusion in the course. It’s a sad state of affairs.