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Published in Print: September 1, 2003, as The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge

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As technology improves, educators have a new reason to dissect animals virtually: It may be better than the real thing.

For three days last May, you could hear a pin drop during Betty Villiard's 10th grade biology class at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, Massachusetts. The classroom wasn't empty, nor were Villiard's students taking exams. Instead, they were intently dissecting about two dozen frogs. Absent were the usual shrieks of disgust or pleas for assistance. Villiard explains why: "There was nothing to be squeamish about or offended by," she says, because her students were conducting their dissections on computer screens.

Pity no more the northern leopard frog and those like him; in many elementary and high school classrooms around the country, dissection has gone virtual. The program Villiard used in her classroom, the Digital Frog 2, is one of several— including offerings from companies like NEOTEK and Science Works—that are increasingly being used to supplement or replace the dissection of frogs and other animals such as cats, rats, and fetal pigs. The simulated dissections let students expose different organs with a computer mouse, through the drawing of "incisions." Students can also access content and graphics describing and illustrating an animal's physiology, ecology, and behavior.

"There was no sharing, there was no avoiding," Villiard says of the simulation. "There was just, 'Let's get in there and do it.'" When Villiard graded her students' lab packets, which tested knowledge gained from the software, she says academic performance exceeded what she would have expected following a traditional dissection. During those procedures, she observes, students tend to be "too busy doing their emotional reaction" to engage in the process as much as she would like. But the virtual approach has won over this 58-year-old veteran science teacher. "Watching the level at which these kids were individually engaged, it was superior to hands-on dissection," she says.

More and more students are refusing to dissect animals, prompted by the emotional reactions Villiard mentions and, in some cases, ethical objections to the process. And refuse they can, at least in nine states—California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—that have approved so-called student choice policies on the issue. Such policies, in the form of state law, resolution, or department of education directive, allow students to learn anatomy and physiology by other means, without penalty. In a recent survey of 5,000 biology teachers conducted by the Humane Society of the United States, two-thirds of those polled indicated they support student choice on the issue of dissection.

Since their emergence in the late 1980s, computer programs have offered one way to accommodate dissenting students. While some early offerings relied on crude, static illustrations, today's software shows vast improvements in the quality and definition of video and still images, the extent and type of organ manipulation possible, and the inclusion of supplementary audio explanations of the dissection process. These days, animal protection organizations like the Humane Society, which lends out virtual dissection programs for teachers to use on a trial basis through its Humane Education Loan Program, are joining technology companies in arguing that simulated dissections are equal to or better than the real thing for all students.

"Obviously if you're studying animals, you need to understand how animals' bodies work. But the whole point is about removing harm to animals in the process," says Lesley King, director for education and animal welfare in the Humane Society's Animal Research Issues department. King also notes that virtual alternatives to dissection are less expensive than the real thing because programs and three-dimensional models, unlike the animals, are a reusable resource.

Cost isn't a primary concern for the national teacher associations weighing in on the issue, who say the dissection decision should be left up to the educators. "Teachers are professionals," says Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "They need to recognize that when students are either not mature enough or not comfortable enough with dissections, they need an alternative." Still, in Wheeler's opinion, virtual dissections aren't as educational as real ones. "The actual experience for the science-oriented child can be very motivating," he says. "I don't think you get that motivated by a computer program."

Wayne Carley, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, agrees. "If you want [a student] to understand how that animal is put together, you've got to have the real thing," says Carley, who adds that his organization opposes the student choice laws allowing kids to opt out of dissection. "Teachers are trained educators, they're trained in the science, and the teachers know what the best method is to obtain their objectives," he says.

Even fans such as Villiard believe that the technology has its limits. She contends that for anatomy and physiology classes beyond 10th grade, the Digital Frog program might be more of a preparatory tool. Hands-on dissections are, in her view, essential at more advanced levels, when students need to focus greater attention on technique and observation skills. Villiard observes that while every student can successfully expose the brain of a frog on a computer, it's the rare student who successfully executes this maneuver on an actual frog.

But the Humane Society insists that virtual alternatives can meet educational needs at higher levels as well, an argument bolstered by the fact that several top medical schools use three-dimensional models and software simulations in lieu of dissection.

The next frontier for the technology is likely to be improved simulations of physiological processes, such as neurological and cellular reactions, tested in actual dissections. As video technology and interactive tools continue to improve, students may have more opportunities to view and manipulate three-dimensional images and conduct a wider range of experiments.

"The reality of understanding how animals work can be learned without digging through their insides," says King. "This whole issue is not about choosing not to do something. It's about, basically, ensuring that compassionate students don't get turned away from science."

—Blair Campbell

Vol. 15, Issue 1, Pages 8,10

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