Dissect frogs? Local pupils can opt out
by Eric Vo Sunday, March 10, 2013
Laboratory periods in middle and high schools offer students the opportunity to participate in hands-on experiments. In a chemistry class, students can boil and mix chemicals to create compounds. In a biology or anatomy and physiology class, students are given the chance to dissect a wide range of creatures, such as grasshoppers, frogs and fetal pigs. Because of the nature of the project, it’s not unusual to find students who are unwilling to participate.
A recent bill, introduced by the state legislature’s Children Committee last month, specifies that “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.”
Local schools already have policies allowing students to be excused from participating in or observing dissections.
“It’s very rare where a teacher will force someone to do a dissection,” said Deborah Young, Sheehan High School science department chairwoman. “You can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to do — it’s common sense.”
In Wallingford, if students decide to opt out of the dissection of an animal, they are given an alternate assignment, Young said. The other assignment can include a number of options, but typically the students perform a virtual dissection, using a computer.
It’s the same situation in Meriden, where students are able to do an alternate assignment if they don’t want to dissect an animal in a science class, said Robert Angeli, associate superintendent for instruction.
“In Meriden, we do have specimen dissection in our science labs. If students have an objection to that, we do have computer-based alternatives,” Angeli said.
Students in Southington High School also have the option to opt out of dissection and to complete an alternative assignment, said Karen Smith, assistant superintendent for instruction and learning.
The computer-based alternatives were praised by the members of the public who submitted testimonials to the Children Committee during a public hearing in February. A number of those who testified disagreed with the practice of dissecting animals and would rather see more students using the computer.
Angeli said software and programs available today are similar to actually dissecting an animal.
“The computer software dissections are really lifelike and give students more of an authentic experience (compared to old software), in terms of viewing and getting to know the internal and external structures of animals,” he said. “They’re pretty fairly detailed at this point.”
The testimonials also stated that there was no educational advantage in doing dissections during class. Young agrees with Angeli and the public in regard to how realistic the computer software can be. However, she believes students get a different experience if they witness the operation first-hand, rather than clicking on pictures on a computer screen.
“The thing is, you can do everything through virtual reality — it’s very similar to the real thing,” Young said. “But there’s something about having it right there in front of you that you’re going to see something … The best part about (dissecting) a frog is to find the flies and other things in its stomach. The kids can actually see the circle of life or the food chain.”
Out of the 50 people who submitted written testimony, a large majority supported the virtual reality alternative because they believe actually dissecting an animal is cruel. Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals — a nonprofit organization based in Darien — agrees.
“It’s so antiquated and ghoulish to think that high school has to be like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab,” Feral said. “Dissection is antiquated. This is what you would expect 100 years ago, not in a computer age.”
Before becoming president of Friends of Animals, Feral said, she could have pursued a career in biology. But the fact that she would have to dissect something was a “roadblock.”
“The idea of doing something repulsive like dissection, that advanced no knowledge whatsoever for any purpose, that meant that I flunked biology,” she said.
But Steve Harris, Cheshire High School science department chairman, said there’s a difference between a live dissection and what the students do in class.
“These are preserved animals, not live,” Harris said. “The experience of euthanizing an animal, even if a teacher does it, that’s the more traumatic thing — that part I can see. But if it’s just a dead, preserved animal in formaldehyde, I don’t see how you can argue it.”
While Young said she understands why people feel that it may be animal cruelty, she still believes doing the actual dissection is valuable for students.
“I’ve been to Afghanistan. You can see a million pictures, but you don’t get to experience it until you get off that plane and see how they live,” Young said. “There’s nothing wrong with having a virtual tour or reading a book, but nothing like actually going (to the country). And I feel like that about dissections.”
Harris agrees with Young’s views.
“If a parent was asking me, ‘Do you think (virtual reality dissection) is providing the same level of education as students that are doing?’ I would say no,” Harris said. “In my opinion, it’s not equivalent.”
“Money gets less and less (in the education budget) — I do see the other side of it,” Young said. “But I would still do everything possible to continue dissecting.”
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