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Many educators chose to provide high quality science education without using animals. Their humane approach to teaching science allows students to learn using a combination of teaching methods ranging from multimedia computer simulation to self-testing on themselves and fellow students to observing living animals, or using the bodies of animals who have died naturally. The following educators and other professionals have reconciled their beliefs that animal use is an unnecessary part of education by abandoning old lessons and supporting new and innovative methods of teaching science.
Nancy Harrison, MD
Pathologist-San Diego, CA
"Computerized dissection alternatives have grown so sophisticated they now surpass traditional wet dissections in many ways. Numerous studies published in the literature of the education profession demonstrate same or better academic performance by students who study alternatives. Given that animal dissection is ethically objectionable to many students, it's only reasonable to allow students free access to alternatives. No student should be forced to participate in the academically inferior teaching mode of animal dissection. Serious pre-meds and pre-vets can best master the dissection by repeatedly studying the superb images found on CD-ROMs."
Bonnie Berenger-Science Teacher
Hunterdon Central Regional High School-Hunterdon, NJ
"Providing students with progressive alternatives to traditional animal dissection, has proven very effective in my classroom. Simulated computer dissections and lifelike models have been well received by students and staff. By respecting the ethics of students and offering such options, students seem relaxed and comfortable, and are therefore encouraged to learn. This atmosphere is empowering and stimulating."
Here's a comment from a former student:
"I appreciate the fact that there is even the option of taking a non-dissection class... The alternative method of teaching the anatomy unit was much easier to learn from than the real thing could have ever been."
-Anonymous course review (sophomore)
Sharon Maselli-Biology Teacher
Westerly Learning Center, New Jersey
This past year I taught an Honors High School Biology class to home taught students at Westerly Learning Center, a resource center located in Princeton, New Jersey. After dissecting a worm and a crayfish, I had two students who stated they could no longer continue dissecting specimens. Given that the lab was mandatory and represented 25 percent of the students' grade, I had to find alternatives. A friend forwarded Animalearn's website to me, and my problems were solved.
Animalearn's Nicole Green was very supportive and helpful in supplying the materials I needed to ensure my students fulfilled their requirements. The drylabs on CDs came quickly and were easily returned in the provided mailing envelopes. Our dissections included the worm, crayfish, frog, perch, fetal pig, and cat. I previewed the drylabs before class each week, finding them very impressive and helpful to my lab planning. At times, I had the whole class join in on the drylab before dissecting specimens. Everyone, including me, laughed over the sound of the cutting scissors and enjoyed 'cutting' the specimen. I was particularly grateful for the drylabs when dissecting the cat, since a few more students chose not to participate in that dissection.
I began the school year stressing the usefulness of dissection and requiring all of my students to complete all the dissections. However, after trying alternatives, I have changed my mind. I found the drylab to be an acceptable option, finding the drylab students did as well as the other students. On several occasions, the wetlab students checked their work with the Animalearn CDs. I found the dry lab students did not experience the usual dissection frustrations, e.g. : "Gross, I have fish eggs on me!" "Is this the gall bladder?" and "I cleaned up last time!"
As a teacher, I am confident that alternatives are an acceptable learning tool, and I believe they should be offered to students who sincerely object to dissection. I am grateful to Animalearn for providing a high quality alternative and for making this product accessible to educators.
Dr. Kathleen T. Brown
Professor and Dept. Head
Dept. of Natural Science
Georgia Military College-Augusta Community College
"We have recently abandoned animal specimen dissection in our Anatomy and Physiology courses in favor of virtual dissection. The student response to this decision has been extremely favorable and the faculty are impressed with the versatility and thoroughness of these products.
The use of computer software eliminates the sacrifice of live animals of other species for the questionable value that such a practice might have in education and presents no such ethical dilemma for students taking the course.
We are very glad to have made this decision and believe it is a most worthwhile investment that is already enhancing our program."
Anchor Bay School District-New Baltimore, MI
Former Editor of The Science Teacher magazine
What's high school biology without frogs? Plenty says this school administrator.
"I Remember Biology," parents often begin at their annual conference with the teacher. "That was when I dissected that terrible-smelling frog." The odor and distaste the dissection experience evokes have been among the most pervasive memories of secondary school science for more than a century. But in the 1990s, environmental consciousness, curricular concerns, and political pressure on schools have changed biology dramatically. Today, teachers often respond to a reminiscing parent, "But we don't do that any more."
The decline of dissection has not come about quickly. Until fairly recently, biology as a secondary school course had changed relatively little since it was instituted at the turn of the century. A short introduction to the microscopic world preceded a frantic race through complex topics in biochemistry for students who had not studied introductory chemistry. Then followed a review of genetics principles discovered in 1864. The course finished with a long, leisurely stroll through the phyla of plants and animals in the context of their evolutionary development-ith dissection as a prime tool.
Neither pressure by Creationists [which temporarily caused removal of the term "evolution" from the textbooks but never excised the evolutionary framework from science teaching] nor innovations by post-sputnik curricular projects managed to change that standard pattern of study. In dissection, health concerns about formaldehyde forced a quick change to new packing solutions for specimens [many resembling anti-freeze] and requirements for wearing safety eyewear. But even an environmental plague of a disease dubbed "red leg," which nearly decimated the already slim population of one species of North American frog [a staple of the biology lab], didn't discourage traditional biology teachers.
Teacher demographics are partly to blame for this curricular inertia. Until quite recently, many states and school systems required only one science course for high school graduation. That single course was nearly always biology or life science. With science teachers in short supply, many physical education teachers found a life science endorsement within easy reach: All they had to do was take a few zoology classes to add to their health education credits. No other science credential can be obtained by taking courses out of sequence or at random in this way.
Soon, physical education majors who had minors in life science became so commonplace that surveys by the National Science Teachers Association [NSTA] found non-majors teaching more than half of the life science classes in the United States. Those teachers were far less likely to be prepared in biochemistry, genetics, or microbiology than to have passing knowledge of zoology. As a result, many biology classes were taught by instructors who were far more comfortable with dissection than with other science activities.
That trend had a marked effect. In the absence of a national curriculum in life science, encyclopedic textbooks became the norm. Less able teachers could select narrative chapters on the animal kingdom and illustrate them by dissection of dead specimens. Groups that led thoughtful challenges to this pattern, such as the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study [a post-sputnik organization that teamed scientists and educators too develop curriculum] seldom had much of an impact on the teaching profession, because of the limited background of so many teachers.
What finally forced some changes in traditional biology coursework was pressure from animal rights groups, which supported a series of successful court challenges to dissection during the 1980s.
The first such case arose when Jenifer Graham, a California high school sophomore, refused to dissect a frog but instead offered to substitute college-level research on amphibian behavior. As evidence of her commitment, she demonstrated a personal history of animal rights activism and vegetarianism. After school officials adamantly refused to honor her request, her grade was lowered from an A to a C. Backed by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups, Graham challenged the grade in the state circuit court and ultimately in the state supreme court.
Graham's case became a forum for long-delayed debate on what was appropriate in a required science course. In that debate, the school officials least effective argument was that the dissection experience was "necessary for college." Surveys and briefs from college faculty failed to establish that any single experience or the content of any single course was necessary for college success.
Graham persisted and ultimately won her point: The California Supreme Court ruled that teachers could require students to dissect only frogs "that had died from natural causes." [The ruling led biologists to conjure images of frantic teachers hovering in swamps waiting for the untimely demise of amphibians.] Two subsequent court challenges in different states have supported the position that student objections to dissection must be considered in designing biology coursework.
Surprisingly, the resistance to these changes came slowly. From a profession that has marshaled the forces of Nobel Prize winners, politicians, and even national church groups to defeat legal challenges to the teaching of evolution, the lack of immediate reaction to this new "intrusion" into the curriculum seems incongruous.
An Outdated Curriculum
Why have so few objections been raised to legal decisions mandating changes in biology teaching? The answer, from the best-trained and most active teachers, is that the zoology-plus-dissection pattern of the traditional high school biology course has been outdated for at least 50 years. Comparative zoology has accounted for the lion's share of the curriculum we have offered students for almost a century, but it has played a relatively limited role in modern biological research.
In a study of more than 7,000 science teachers, a joint committee of NSTA and the National Association of Biology Teachers determined that the key concepts of modern biology are cell biology, energy use, genetics, evolution, systems, ecology, animal behavior, taxonomy and the relationship of science to technology and society. [By "taxonomy" the committee means the science of how biologists identify and trace the evolution of organisms, not the Latin names that were developed as a result.] Note that detailed studies of individual animals are conspicuous by their absence from this list.
Educators agree that science should involve hands-on laboratory experience. But the lack of training and preparation that persists among many science teachers means that dissection is often the only hands-on experience they know. And that raises a disturbing spectre: A move away from dissection that leaves students holding nothing but textbooks would be far from an improvement.
The New Biology
The uneasy status of litigation and curricular change has left school administrators and school boards uncertain; can schools offer excellent programs in life science without including dissection? Certainly they can.
The consensus, from recent statements from the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the various professional teacher groups, is that the study of biology should be scientific-active, inquiry-oriented, and geared toward preparation for the 21st century. Studies, whether involving dissection or not, must emphasize their relevance to humans and to the environment.
Laboratories in the "new biology" look far more like chemistry labs and will require more complex equipment, facilities, and safety precautions than found in today's biology classrooms. Many of the rooms designed for biology classes in schools built in the 1950s and 1960s will need major renovation to be suitable environments for learning in the 1990s. And so will many of the teachers; training in labs considered standard today, such as genetic engineering and animal behavior, was completely absent from teacher education programs even five years ago.
Another thorny problem for school administrators is establishing curriculum guidelines that will help fend off student court challenges. A California school system's obstinate response to Jenifer Graham's valid objection to dissection cost the school board thousands of dollars in legal fees. Unless a school system confronted with a similar challenge is willing and able to tap the advice of experts in a specific curriculum, the validity of a student's challenge might be difficult to establish.
Although the issue has no simple answers, several guidelines have emerged from the California case and the curricular discussions that have followed. First, curriculum in required coursework should be directed toward what students will need to know as adult citizens in society-not what college students might [or might not] need to know. Potential applicability to undergraduate work seldom justifies a specific classroom activity; activities must be designed with an eye to their effect on the attitudes and thinking patterns of all students, not just the college-bound.
A second, more practical consideration that emerged from the court challenges is that school officials should consider students' histories in weighing the validity of their objections to a specific school experience. Jenifer Graham's history as an animal rights activist and vegetarian was a strong defense, establishing that her refusal to take part in assigned dissection was not a whim or a rebellion against school. Not every student challenged to a class assignment can be backed by such evidence of commitment.
Finally, cases such as Jenifer Graham's underscore the importance of keeping in touch with trends in the profession through national professional groups. Had Graham's teachers been taking part in the growing dissection debate that was going on in professional meetings and journals, the school system would probably have realized it was trying to defend an untenable position. No single administration or board can keep in touch with all the trends, issues, and controversies in secondary curricula. But professional faculty members who have ties to associations, publications, and meetings can follow the trends in their own subject fields.
In today's life science classes, dissection hasn't become extinct but its role is far smaller than it used to be. Teachers who have chosen to retain selected dissection activities illustrate more advanced ideas. And they are providing alternative activities for students who find dissection unpleasant or unnerving.
The odor of preservatives has not disappeared from life science classrooms, but it is far less pervasive in a curriculum that is looking forward to the next century. When today's students become parents, they will come to parent-teacher conferences with more exciting memories of lively life science.
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