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Monday, 02 July 2007
Dissection Just Doesn't Cut it in Today's Science Classroom


The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

By Ruth Padawer

Dissection, that staple of high school biology class, is slowly going the way of the slide rule, yielding to changes in technology, values, funding and science itself.

"Biology has changed a lot," said Edward Nartowitz, science supervisor at Ridgewood High School. "There was a time when biology was mostly descriptive, so most of what you did was to dissect plants and animals. No more."

The shift away from dissection reflects scientists' evolving understanding of the intricate mechanics of living things. Much of today's academic inquiry has moved to sophisticated studies at the cellular and molecular level, far more complicated than simple anatomy. Moreover, in some classrooms, computer simulation has replaced traditional dissection because it offers not only lessons in anatomy but experiments in physiology, too. In addition, the very reason behind dissection — comparative anatomy — has been overshadowed by the much bigger emphasis in today's high school biology classes on ecology and the environment.

Concerns about animal welfare have also contributed to the change. Len Niebo, science supervisor for Bergenfield, said the use of dissection in his district has dropped markedly for that reason.

"We used to do worms, crayfish, fish, fetal pigs, frogs and even live frogs — destroying the central nervous system so it wouldn't feel pain, and cutting it open to examine the beating heart," he said. "No one today would argue that wasn't cruel."

Students themselves are driving some of the move away from formaldehyde-drenched frogs. Nartowitz said about a dozen of the 400 students in Ridgewood's freshman bio opt out of dissection each year. Bunny Jaskot, president of the Biology Teachers Association of New Jersey, said that even in her AP Biology class — which is currently dissecting pregnant rats to study the reproductive system — some students refuse to partake in the experiments.

Practical activism

Yielding to pressure from anti-vivisection activists, New Jersey last year became the ninth state in the nation to allow students to opt-out of dissection labs, whether because of the yuck factor or a belief in its inhumanity. Instead, they participate in virtual labs — and if they can't stomach even that, they examine plastic models and do research papers.

After the legislation passed, The Humane Society of the United States sent out thousands of letters to science teachers across the state, offering free loans of CD-ROMs, models, videotapes, slides and charts. Although the group's motivation is to reduce the number of animals cut open, the arguments they make to districts are more practical.

"For schools that are struggling financially — and which one isn't? — it makes more sense to go with the virtual program, which has been found in peer-reviewed studies to be as educational or better than actual dissection, and cheaper," said Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society. "Besides, you can do the dissection over and over on a computer model, whereas with a real frog in front of you, once you've cut open its liver, you can't do it again."

Anti-vivisection activists argue that dissecting animals in middle or high school is unnecessary and unethical — and superfluous even in most college settings. But many high school teachers say that while they have cut back, they're not giving up dissection altogether.

Hands-on approach

"It allows students to feel the delicateness of the tissue and to appreciate the complexity of a living thing," said Patricia Lord, science adviser for Teaneck's schools, where high school bio classes used to dissect earthworms, frogs, perch and fetal pigs but now do only one species a year. "They can inflate the animal's lungs using a pipette to see how lungs work. They can unravel the intestine to see how long it is and how it's packed in. There's so much to learn that way, and they're always amazed."

Besides, virtual dissection can only teach so much, said Jaskot. Although she has stopped doing dissections in her Bio 1 class at Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Jaskot still uses it in her AP class because many of those students intend to go on to medical school.

"I wouldn't want a surgeon working on me who had only worked on a simulation," she said.

And some districts say that even though dissection is less common in high school, it's showing up more in middle and elementary school.

Teaneck fifth-graders dissect a pig heart when they study the circulatory system. Tenafly seventh-graders dissect frogs. In Alpine, seventh-graders dissect earthworms, crayfish, fish, frogs and chickens.

But it starts earlier than that. Alpine fifth-graders dissect pig hearts discarded from a local butcher, and third-graders dissect the pellets that owls regurgitate, picking out skeleton parts to figure out what the owl had eaten.

"We've always believed in hands-on science in this district, but adding it to the lower grades is new," said Maureen McCann, who helped develop Alpine's science curriculum. "Sure, we have body parts under glass that the students can look at, but it's totally different for them to do the dissection themselves, pulling it apart and really examining it. Most of them think it's really great."

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