Technology Aids Dissection Foes

By David J. Hoff — May 30, 2001 8 min read
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When Lauren S. Skaskiw refused to dissect a fetal pig last year, she learned a lesson in biology—and civics.

The junior at Woodstock Union High School in eastern Vermont managed to earn her class’s highest grade on the dissection-lab report, even though she participated “virtually” through a CD-ROM and a model of a pig.

She then embarked on a campaign that took her to the Statehouse in Montpelier this legislative session, back to a school board meeting, and this week to a local committee meeting that she hopes will result in a new policy requiring the school to offer alternatives to dissecting a specimen.

“High school students are mature enough to know whether they want to dissect an animal,” Ms. Skaskiw said in a recent interview. “My classmates doing the dissection were not learning things. They were playing with the organs. They were getting sick because of the smell or because they were grossed out about what they were doing.”

She is part of a new generation of animal-rights activists who demand that they be exempted from what has long been a rite of passage for high school biology students: the cutting open and exploration of a once-living animal.

Aided by new technologies that mimic the dissection experience and laws in some states that require schools to find substitutes for such class assignments, students like Ms. Skaskiw often are successful in learning the material and achieving high grades without violating their principles or taking part in an experiment they find offensive.

Through the Digital Frog 2 CD-ROM, students can use a computer mouse to replicate cuts made in actual dissection. The program runs video footage showing what those cuts would uncover.
—Images from Digital Frog International

But biology teachers question whether those who pursue an alternative path get a full understanding of how an animal’s organs, tissues, and nervous systems cooperate to keep it alive.

“There can be good learning experiences from computers and other technologies,” said Wayne Carley, the executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, a Reston, Va.-based membership group. “But they do not replace and are not equivalent to dissecting a real animal. If you want to teach a kid how a muscle works, you have to let that kid get inside the animal and tug and pull.”

Few Objectors

In the past decade, animal-rights proponents—better known for their protests against fur coats and the use of living animals in research labs—have also focused their attention on getting rid of dissection in schools.

The groups, for example, contend that the practice of dissecting frogs—the most common species used in introductory biology—is one reason for declining populations of the amphibians in some regions. While acid rain and pesticides probably have more to do with the diminishing frog numbers, capturing frogs for use in high school biology classes can’t help the species, animal-rights activists say.

Frogs, as well as cats, rats, and turtles, are stored in inhumane conditions by companies that supply schools with the specimens, according to the Humane Society of the United States, a leading voice against dissections.

While the Humane Society and the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have encouraged opposition to dissection, Mr. Carley and biology teachers say they see little protest and few students opting out.

“There’s always a couple, every now and then,” said Philip J. McCrea, a biology teacher at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and a former biology-association president. “As soon as one kid makes a big, verbal statement, then suddenly three or four others do.”

Mr. McCrea said only one student of his refused to dissect a fetal pig in an introductory-biology class this year. While her classmates worked on teams poking and probing the specimens, she explored the animal in a CD-ROM produced by ScienceWorks, a Winston-Salem, N.C., company that produces simulated dissections of pigs, frogs, earthworms, perch, and crayfish.

For the exam on the unit, Mr. McCrea showed the girl pictures of a pig’s organs and asked her to identify them. Her classmates were assessed on their ability to identify the organs of an actual specimen. While the objector aced the exam, her teacher said he isn’t convinced she understood the biology of the pig as well as others in the class.

“She didn’t get the intricacy of seeing the tissues and how they fit together, and how all the membranes hold it together,” Mr. McCrea said. “She can’t get that by looking at a picture.”

While the student may not have acquired as complete a scientific lesson, she did learn one about the value of life, according to the Humane Society. Live dissections, the group argues, treat animals as “expendable” and teach disrespect for their lives.

Adequate Alternatives

Animal-rights advocates say dissecting by video or computer screen can produce a high-quality learning experience.

“Most of the time, [alternative dissections] work out very well,” said Cheryl L. Ross, a research assistant for animal-research issues at the Humane Society, a Washington-based animal-welfare group. “We find that a lot of students learned exactly the same thing—or even more.”

In the Digital Frog 2, a CD-ROM produced by a Puslinch, Ontario, company, students select what portion of the amphibian to dissect. They are prompted to draw a line connecting two dots on the screen to mimic a scalpel cut. When they’re done, they watch a video of an actual dissection, with a narrator describing what is happening.

The CD-ROM also includes sections that ask the user to highlight organs or body parts on the screen.

The Humane Society runs a loan program from which teachers and students can borrow materials for students who don’t want to dissect a specimen. Products such as Digital Frog 2 “give a good overall view of dissection” without forcing students to do something they might find objectionable, Ms. Ross said.

But many teachers believe the computer models work best as supplements.

Michael D. Nassise, the science-department chairman at Stoughton High School in Massachusetts, about 20 miles south of Boston, said a student can refer to the computer model if he or she makes an incorrect cut and ruins an organ.

“It supplements the actual dissection very, very nicely,” said Mr. Nassise, who notes that he makes accommodations for students who don’t want to dissect.

Use of such simulations as alternatives, not just supplements, may rise as the Humane Society and other organizations push for laws requiring that students be informed they will have to cut up an animal specimen before they sign up for a course, and compelling schools to substitute other activities.

“There’s no reason to [require a dissection], because there are alternatives that are as good and often superior to dissecting a specimen,” argued Theodora Capaldo, the president of the Ethical Science and Education Coalition, a Boston group lobbying for a Massachusetts law requiring schools to give students such choices.

Such laws started to go on the books in the late 1980s, following a suburban Los Angeles girl’s lawsuit to get her grade raised after she produced a report based on a computer-based dissection. Because Jenifer Graham refused to cut open an animal, her teacher had lowered her grade from an A to a B. (“Plug Pulled on Frog Advocate’s TV Ad,” Nov. 25, 1987.)

California and seven other states require schools to tell students dissection will be part of a biology course. California, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island also mandate that schools offer an alternative to conducting an actual dissection, according to the Ethical Science and Education Coalition.

The Illinois and Maryland laws have had little impact, according to biology teachers in those states, because most schools were already offering alternatives.

“The legislation has not caused a rampant rush to avoid dissection,” said Dale E. Peters, a biology teacher at Urbana High School in Maryland and the president of the Maryland Association of Science Teachers. “For the most part, it’s been a nonissue.”

In Illinois, most urban and suburban districts have long provided backup measures, Mr. McCrea said. Some rural districts may have to scramble to comply with the year-old law, but in those areas, students who have grown up on or near farms are usually comfortable around dead animals, he remarked.

But such laws are necessary because teachers are authority figures whom most students don’t want to challenge, according to the Ethical Science and Education Coalition. Even if schools give students a choice, “you will get the occasional teacher who will duke it out with a student,” Ms. Capaldo said.

Many teachers, though, say they willingly allow students to opt out of dissecting an animal, especially in an introductory course.

It’s a different story for students in Advanced Placement biology or an anatomy course. They need the experience of an actual dissection because many will be pursuing science as a major in college or as a career, said James E. Slouf, the science chairman at Downers Grove South High School in suburban Chicago.

Students who sign up for those courses know ahead of time that they will be expected to dissect animals, Mr. Slouf said.

Making Her Case

After being told that her class would be investigating a fetal pig last school year, Ms. Skaskiw, the Vermont student, approached her teacher and announced her objections. The teacher urged her to change her mind, telling her that she would not have the same in-depth learning experience with a computer program.

Ms. Skaskiw appealed to the science-department chairman, who granted her an exemption from the live dissection, she said.

She and her mother researched other states’ laws and started lobbying the Vermont legislature. She worked closely with state Sen. Cheryl Rivers, the Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, to draft a bill that was introduced in this year’s session.

Ms. Skaskiw circulated petitions supporting the bill, solicited letters endorsing it, and produced a video with testimonials for her cause. This spring, she traveled to Montpelier to testify before Ms. Rivers’ committee.

In the end, lawmakers told the 17-year-old that the bill wouldn’t pass the legislature this year because they saw it as an intrusion on local decisionmaking, Ms. Skaskiw said. At her urging, however, the school board of the 1,400-student Windsor Central district told the high school’s principal and science teachers to craft a policy that encompasses the intent of the bill.

When the school committee meets, Ms. Skaskiw plans to be there to ensure that it fully protects the rights of students who don’t want a hands-on science lesson in cutting open an animal.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Technology Aids Dissection Foes


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