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When Cutting Up in Class Is Okay
More Popular Than Ever, Hands-On Anatomy Lessons Expand in Scope

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007

It felt like a hard-boiled egg to 17-year-old Anna Rediger, and looked a bit like cauliflower. But in her gloved hand was a piece of a sheep's brain, which she had scraped, sliced and probed to learn how the organ -- and, by extension, a human brain -- is designed.

The senior at Oakton High School in Fairfax County was performing a dissection, one of several that teacher Ann Starr's anatomy and physiology class will do this year to study the systems -- respiratory, digestive and so on -- that make up living things. Earlier in the year, a fetal pig and a chicken were dissected; coming up are a cat and an animal heart.

"It's kind of amazing to realize that this is, well, real," Rediger said. "You can touch it. You really do learn better this way."

Dissections have been a staple of classroom science since the 1920s. Parents of today's students may well remember the venerable frogs that their teachers once forced them to slice into. But things have changed.

Once the province of high school, dissections have moved into earlier grades, science teachers say. It's common for middle school students now to dissect animals, and some elementary classes do, too.

"We do have teachers who do demonstrations in elementary school," said Odette Scovel, science supervisor for Loudoun County Public Schools. "It works if it fits their curriculum, although I don't necessarily encourage it. The skill of the teacher plays a big role in the decision."

And for those morally opposed, or simply too squeamish, modern technology has provided a ready alternative: computer-based virtual dissections, sometimes with three-dimensional technology that makes the experience far more vivid than regular photographs.

Some students prefer the computer versions because they are "tuned in electronically," Scovel said.

"That is their method of learning, and they can translate a virtual environment very easily into a real environment," she said. Other kids can't do that. "It has to do with their learning style and brain development."

A 2002 poll by the Humane Society showed that a majority of biology teachers say they believe the real thing is a better educational experience than the virtual alternative. The National Association of Biology Teachers supports the practice of dissection when done for legitimate educational purposes, as does the National Science Teachers Association.

"I would use the example of driving a real car versus a driving simulation on a computer or in a game room machine. The real-time dissection provides awareness to all of the senses -- touch especially -- texture, form, etc.," Kenneth R. Roy, chairman of the Science Safety Advisory Board of the science teachers association, wrote in an e-mail.

Across the country, more dissections are performed than ever before, according to advocates and critics of dissection. The nonprofit Humane Society estimates that 6 million vertebrate animals are dissected in U.S. high schools alone; the number of dissections of invertebrate animals is probably comparable, it says. There are no estimates for elementary and middle schools.

Meanwhile, dozens of kinds of animals are used today, a broader range than ever, selected to teach different lessons. Although frogs remain the most commonly dissected animal, others include dogfish sharks, rats, mice, turtles and snakes, and invertebrates including starfish, earthworms, cockroaches and grasshoppers.

The rise of the animal rights movement has sparked an increase in opposition to the practice, accompanied by a movement to allow students who want to opt out to be given alternative educational options, said Kathleen Conlee, director of program management for animal research issues at the Humane Society.

"We get calls from students who are being punished for refusing," she said. "It has happened on occasion even in states that have student choice."

Nine states, including Virginia, have passed laws requiring schools to grant students alternatives to dissection; four, including Maryland, have informal policies that demand the same thing. D.C. public schools have no stated policy, a spokeswoman said.

Conlee said the organization has received no complaints from this region of students being forced to perform a dissection, although there are cases elsewhere in the country.

Starr's students said they believed the learning experience was worth any discomfort they might feel in using animals.

"I think it's okay, because it's educational," Rediger said.

Starr said she asks students to think carefully about whether they want to take her class, an elective, because of the graphic dissections. Once in her class, she said, nobody has opted out, although a Muslim student refused to dissect a fetal pig, and students in other Oakton classes have declined to do any.

Starr started Friday's sheep brain dissection with a warning about protective gear.

"Does the stuff squirt out?" shouted one student, referring to the preservative used to keep the brain from decomposing.

"It can," warned Starr. "I don't want to see anyone without goggles."

As teams of students took 10 brains to dissect, there were bumps in the dissection road, albeit small ones.

"Stop poking it," Jessica Larson, a 16-year-old junior, barked to her classmate Amy Koch, who was using her metal probe to inspect a small round gland (the pineal body). It fell off.

After everyone had removed the outer layers, called the meninges, and identified the cerebrum and cerebellum and olfactory bulb and thalamus and pons, Starr said it was time to wrap up.

"I want your brains in the tray," she told her students.

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