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.

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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3 Responses to Dissections

  1. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    “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?”

    Frogs and other animals for dissection used to be kept in formalin. This is not popular anymore because the chemical is slightly toxic. How are the animals that you used preserved?

    It is indeed true that in some courses, live frogs are caught and kept cold, then killed by sticking a large needle through their brain just prior to dissection. The teacher or a lab assistant does this. This way, the frog is much more fresh and real than one preserved in formalin or other preservative that may make it stiffer than a fresh one. I don’t recommend this with pigs though.

  2. Alexandra Jennelle says:

    I did one dissection in my K-college education in Florida:a starfish. It was interesting enough, but at the time I wondered why anatomical models weren’t available in the way they are for human anatomy classes. An understanding of systems within an organism is useful and should be taught, but I’d be more in favor of organ dissection (hearts from livestock, for example: parts of animals killed for food but not eaten as often) supplemented with instruction on their placement in the system of that animal. Cow stomachs would be fun that way: “Here’s number one, and here’s…”

    I’m in favor of the digital programs, to be honest. While I appreciate and agree with your passionate interest in providing opportunities for students, and your commitment to giving them as real an experience as possible, the animal rights issue is a bigger concern for some–like myself–than you seem to think it is.

    One more tidbit about digital learning programs involving animals: when my mom was a college student, she took a research/statistics course, and instead of using a lab rat that would later be destroyed, the class used a software rat, Sniffy (powered by a random outcome generator, I guess?). I thought it was fascinating, and asked her a lot about what she was doing and thought it was cool to watch her “experiment” with this digital rat.

  3. Jonathan Smith says:

    I think learning to be a scientist is much like an apprenticeship, you can’t learn to be a serious engineer if you never set foot in a machine shop, even though that simulation might help you learn the concepts involved. Experimental science requires something like a green thumb, a hard to describe ability to use your tools with just the right touch. Many experiments are technically challenging, and require dexterity and experience to do them well, that is. The virtual science they describe is no substitute.. I think they may be some benefits to it at some levels, but not for AP classes.

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