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Should students dissect animals or should schools move to virtual dissections?


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I can still remember the day we dissected fetal pigs in high school biology class.

Increasingly, states are giving students the right to decide whether they want to dissect animals. Eleven states now have dissection choice laws enabling students to decide whether they want to dissect a frog or fetal pig.

With passage earlier this month of a choice law, Connecticut became the latest state to allow students to make the decision. The law says: A local or regional school district shall excuse any student from participating in, or observing, the dissection of any animal as part of classroom instruction if such student has requested, in writing, to be excused from such participation or observation. 

The other states with choice laws are California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

Supporters contend it's unnecessary to kill animals for dissection lessons, noting that even medical schools are now using computerized animation in instruction of future doctors in some classes.

According to the Humane Society of the United States:

Millions of vertebrate animals are dissected yearly in U.S. high schools alone, with an additional, unknown number used in colleges, and middle and elementary schools. The number of invertebrate animals dissected is probably comparable to that of vertebrate animals.

The most commonly dissected vertebrate animals are frogs, fetal pigs and cats. Other vertebrate animals used in dissection include dogfish sharks, perch, rats, pigeons, salamanders, rabbits, mice, turtles, snakes, mink, foxes, and bats. Invertebrate animals used in dissection include crayfish, grasshoppers, earthworms, clams, sea stars, squid, sea urchins, and cockroaches. Frogs, spiny dogfish (sharks), mudpuppies and other salamanders, birds, snakes, turtles, fish, and most invertebrate animals used in dissection are predominantly taken from the wild.

Given the realism of computer-generated images, a Georgia Tech professor questions why more schools don't opt for virtual dissections. Robert Rosenberger is an assistant professor of philosophy at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the School of Public Policy.  He studies how users interact with technologies, investigating topics such as educational devices, Mars imaging, and cell-phone-induced driving impairment.

This debate has yet to reach Georgia, although it will.  Which side will you take?

By Robert Rosenberger

Students in the state of Connecticut will soon be able to opt out of participation in classroom animal dissection.  Earlier this month, the state legislature of Connecticut passed a bill which requires that students who object to dissection activities be allowed to perform an alternative assignment, so long as they receive permission from their parents. 

With this legislation, Connecticut joins 10 other states that maintain “student choice” laws, and five more with informal policies (adopted, for example, by a state’s department of education). 

Georgia is not one of those states with a student choice law on the books, and thus our children do not have this freedom.  Hopefully this news from Connecticut will inspire local school districts here, and perhaps even the state legislature, to consider adopting policies that give our students the option to learn anatomy lessons through activities their families feel are morally acceptable.        

There are multiple reasons why a student may object to educational dissection activities in the classroom.  Students may personally find it unethical to slice open an animal specimen, especially one killed specifically for this assignment.  Students may also have environmental concerns, for example objecting to the fact that frogs for dissection are largely sourced directly from the wild despite their endangered status.  With these sorts of objections in mind, it seems appropriate to adopt policies that give a student the freedom to learn the same material through alternative activities consistent with their conscience.  

With the increasing sophistication of computer simulations of dissection, students now have adequate—and in many ways superior—educational alternatives to the dissection of an animal specimen.  As seen in the increasing realism of computer-generated imagery in video games and movies, cutting-edge computer-simulated dissections offer sufficient stand-ins for the experience of hands-on dissection.  Many dissection simulations even include lessons that extend far beyond the traditional dissection experience.  These can involve video and animation to show the motions of internal bodily systems (lessons impossible in the case of an inert corpse), and interactive tutorials about the animal’s habitat (again impossible for a specimen already snatched from its natural environment).         

Of course some will argue that the real value of classroom dissection is that it provides students with a memorable and visceral hands-on experience.  But you can be a defender of hands-on learning in general and still oppose this particular hands-on activity.  For example, parents may be concerned that classroom dissection inadvertently teaches the wrong lessons about how we should treat animals.  We should instead support hands-on undertakings less loaded with ethical and environmental issues, such as class trips, microscopes, chemistry experiments, and interactive simulations.   

What’s more, using computer-simulated dissection makes financial sense.  By investing in dissection simulations, school districts can save money in the long run compared to the accumulating costs of disposable animal samples.  Add to this the fact that several animal advocacy organizations will lend simulations to schools for little or no cost.  Ideally, these savings could be reinvested into materials for other hands-on activities that are less ethically fraught.     

We should not let the news of Connecticut’s student choice legislation pass by without considering how similar policies here in Georgia might benefit our own children.  It is time to start exploiting the untapped potential for computer simulations in biology instruction.  It is time to talk about putting the ethical choices involved in classroom dissection into the hands of students and their families. 

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