Middle school is a time filled with rites of passage. While students’ challenges with some, such as puberty, are well-known, others take place more quietly within the confines of school. Among these is the introduction to animal dissection.
Schools throughout the United States use dissection as a learning tool almost ubiquitously, usually starting with owl pellets and then moving on to more advanced animals like frogs and snakes. According to John Moore, a professor at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., and past president of the National Association of Biology Teachers, dissection is crucial to a thorough understanding of animal and human biology.
“Dissection allows the students who are working on the organism to truly gain an understanding of the complexity of the organism,” Moore said.
He recalled that dissection made him value life more, not less. “I think I got a greater appreciation for life, for the complexity of life, for the value of life, not just in the sense of humans, but in all organisms by seeing how amazing the structures on them are.”
But to many, dissection is seen as unnecessary slaughter of animals and a general promotion of violence toward them. Leading the opposition are animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been battling the practice for decades.
“I don’t feel dissection teaches students anything other than callousness towards animals and nature,” said Justin Goodman, research supervisor in the laboratory investigation department at PETA and an adjunct professor in sociology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.
A recent technological development now offers Goodman and other opponents more ammunition in their battle against animal dissection. New digital computer programs claim to offer a realistic simulation of dissection without the gore and loss of life.
Goodman finds this alternative viable for a number of reasons, primarily because it does not promote violence towards animals. “I believe that for all students, learning about biology and the natural world is very important, but I don’t think that we need to harm animals to do so,” he said.
He also said that computer models work as well as actual dissection to advance knowledge of an animal’s body and cited a number of studies that support his view. “Nearly every single comparative study that’s ever been conducted has found that the students who use alternatives perform as well as or better than peers in their class who actually dissect animals,” Goodman said.
However, Moore says early introduction to the hands-on experience of dissection cannot be disregarded. Students interested in biology at the college level, including those wishing to pursue health-related careers, need such training, he said. “Those individuals must have a good understanding of the anatomy. So for me to remove that totally to some form of simulation or model, I think that would be a poor choice in education,” he said.
A group of seventh-graders at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis also value the real-life experience. In May, their class divided into groups to dissect a rat, snake or pigeon. Images on a SMART Board, or interactive whiteboard, paralleled the dissection work in the classroom.
The students overwhelmingly agreed that dissection was beneficial to their learning experiences. “I thought we learned like what really is in an animal’s body, like how similar they are to humans and how they work,” said Jane Ketzenberger, 13. “I don’t think the digital version is as good as actually seeing it and cutting it open and seeing what’s there.”
The students also found that they weren’t as disgusted by the procedure as they thought they would be. Gina Brase, 13, said, “Most of the people who were kind of scared they’d freak out about it, they kind of weren’t as grossed out as the procedure went on.”
Goodman opposes the idea that the hands-on experience is advantageous, though, arguing that students who struggle with the gore and mess of actual dissection are prone to mistakes. “When you’re cutting up a dead animal, you get one shot to do it right, and if you don’t, you’re out of luck,” he said.
“On a computer, you can repeat the same thing over and over again and go back when you don’t understand something and take your time and really pace yourself.”
But proponents argue that nothing substitutes for the quirks and complications of real life. Animal anatomy in a virtual dissection is depicted perfectly, and that does not imitate what actual dissections are like, they said.
Another shortcoming of the alternative is that when dissecting an animal on a computer, students use only their sense of sight. Actual dissection, however, involves many senses that can help students and others better understand an animal and its conditions.
“There are truly skills which are gained in this process, both hand manipulative-type skills with carrying out proper dissections, and skills involved with techniques used to examine and explore organisms,” said Moore.
Dariusz Cholewa, 13, explained that his understanding of the rat he dissected involved much more than his sense of sight. “I had to kind of take a breather because the smell of the rat was terrible,” he said. “But at the end, even if it was pretty gross and it smelled really bad, I think it was definitely worth it because it’s pretty fun, too.”
But Goodman argues that a gross-out experience is not educational at all. “You know, meaningful education is about more than providing some kind of visceral experience and cheap thrills to students, and that’s all dissection is. It provides this really weird, and in some instances gut-wrenching, experience for students. And while that may be a unique experience, it doesn’t mean that it’s an effective educational experience.”
Both sides do agree, though, that it is fair and worthwhile to offer alternatives to students who object to hands-on dissection on religious or moral grounds. About a dozen states have laws allowing students to opt out of wielding a knife.
None of the St. Thomas students would choose virtual dissection, though. “The hands-on experience is just a lot more educational,” said Mitch Morris, 13.
Contributing to this story were assistant editor Utah Davis-Kinsey, 16, and reporters Patrick Naremore, 11, Jade Poynter, 12, and Lisa von Werder, 12.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press