Breaking Old School Habits

Seven Ways to Bring Biology Class Back to Life





The reactions vary, but almost every American teenager has had the experience of cutting up a frog or fetal pig in biology class. Initiated in the 1920s, dissection was seen as an important hands-on learning experience, impossible to duplicate any other way. It was—and to many biology teachers still is—a rite of passage.

"Humane methods of biology instruction are not only available but more valuable," says Dr. Barbara Orlans, a bioethicist and physiologist at Georgetown University. Still, many educators persist in doing dissections. Orlans, a long-standing member of the Animal Welfare Institute's Scientific Committee, says it's time for change: "High school and undergraduate dissection should go."

In the 1970s and '80s, a growing sensitivity emerged over the way animals should be treated and the rights of students who object to dissection. Eventually, 11 states passed laws that protect a student's choice to opt out. But of greater significance is the fact that veterinary and medical schools across the country have made tremendous advances in teaching biology, resulting in fewer dissections—perhaps as much as an 80 percent reduction, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). This is due in part to technology, which has taken giant leaps forward in offering affordable, state-of-the-art 3-D imaging, CD-ROMs, computer software, videotapes and realistic models as viable (and in many cases superior) alternatives.

With so many high quality, cost-effective and humane alternatives, it just doesn't make sense that most high schools and undergraduate colleges and universities haven't followed suit.

Why are these students still performing routine frog and fetal pig dissections to learn about basic human anatomy when the institutions that train doctors, nurses, veterinarians and paramedics are taking a more practical and enlightened approach?

Professor Lynette A. Hart of the University of California, Davis has been delving into this question with her colleagues Mary W. Wood and Hsin-Yi Weng for several years. She heads up the UC Center for Animal Alternatives at the School of Veterinary Medicine and is working on a pilot program to provide administrative guidance on the use of animals in pre-college education. In a soon-to-be-published article (see resources below), the authors explain what they see as the key roadblocks that stand in the way of mainstreaming dissection alternatives in high school biology courses.

First, Hart and her colleagues are stunned that the controversial topic of dissection is "seldom mentioned within science education research, national curricular standards and science frameworks." The second barrier is a lack of resources. In this era of never-ending budget cuts, Hart maintains that high school science resource centers that were in place only a decade ago are gone today. These centers provided teachers with a constant flow of living protozoa and multicellular organisms, as well as software and equipment, throughout the school year. The third hurdle is motivational. Striving to inspire their students via experiential learning, time-crunched teachers gravitate toward what is familiar and nearest at hand.

So what can be done? In seeking answers to this question, we've interviewed a high school biology teacher, an ethologist, a bioethicist, a director of a humane education organization and several college professors. Here's what they suggest as simple yet important ways to put back the life in life sciences:

1. Talk about it

Many of these experts agree that biology needs to include a discussion of animal ethics. "I'm sympathetic to teachers who want students to have contact with the internal anatomy of an animal," says Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, an ethologist with PCRM, "but why is it that how that animal was obtained, where it came from and how it was killed are never discussed?" He continues, "If students and teachers were to witness the ghastly procurement of these animals, classroom dissections would fast become an endangered exercise."

ii. Invest in technology

One computer program features 30 separate views of the dissected human heart prepared by a cardiac surgeon. The new interactive CD-ROM Digital Frog II includes an anatomy module, dissection module and an ecology module. These and other models, simulators, videos and multi-media programs quickly become cost effective, as they are used class after class, semester after semester. According to Nick Jukes, coordinator of InterNICHE, a not-for-profit international organization that acts as a clearinghouse for alternative educational materials, "Powerful new software can support effective understanding of structure and process in ways that make conventional dissection and animal experiments look amateurish."

iii. Stimulate interest in the human body

Inspired by pre-med and medical courses but tailored to fit a high school or college student's needs, self-experimentation is an important part of the alternatives market. Students usually work in small groups to perform processes on themselves—for example, the relation of heart function to aerobic exercise. "It's interactive, hands-on and involves data analysis. It can even include hypothesis testing if the teacher structures it that way," says George Russell, a biology professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. who regularly engages his students in activities like this one. Look for packages by Biopac and Iworx.

iv. Create web-based teaching resources

"My dream is to see eight software lessons free on the web to provide a backbone for excellent instruction worldwide in high school biology," says Professor Hart. She envisions smart, sophisticated software using videogame technology, easily accessible to all teachers, that covers eight basic laboratories on the skeletal-muscular, respiratory, digestive, nervous, reproductive, circulatory, hearing and visual systems. "It could revolutionize biology laboratories in many classrooms," she says.

v. Bring back high school resource centers

Orlans and Hart can't stress enough how valuable the resource centers once were. "Biology is the study of life," says Orlans. "When teachers use live organisms in the classroom, students learn far more." The centers were a one-stop source for live protozoa, bacteria, fungi, ants, earthworms, spiders and other creatures shared by teachers. These centers provided responsible animal care and also included equipment designed for experiments on humans. Parents, teachers and students need to push for their return.

vi. Find ethical sources

Veterinary schools often have donor programs in which a person wills their deceased pet to a school for dissection.

Dr. Balcombe feels that this could be done in colleges and high schools, too. "As a community service, veterinary students could volunteer to come to class to discuss the animal's anatomy and any health issues the pet had. Then the animal has a name, a biography, and this means so much more. It means there is respect for the animal."

vii. Teach animal awareness and compassion

Peg Cornell, a high school biology teacher at Corvallis High School in Corvallis, Ore., has taught for 16 years and says she sees a difference in students' views toward animals. "There's more awareness now that animals have emotions, language and intelligence." The connections children make with the natural world last a lifetime, she explains. Professor Russell says, "Perhaps what the world needs most is compassion and a deep sense of caring. Biology teachers have an obligation to help our young people develop these capacities."

With all we know today, it's time to recognize that killing and harming animals for educational purposes is not in the students' best interests. There are so many better ways to learn.


In Print

The Use of Animals in Higher Education by Jonathan Balcombe, Humane Society Press, 2000

"Three Barriers Obstructing Mainstreaming Alternatives in K-12 Education" by Lynette A. Hart, Mary W. Wood and Hsin-Yi Weng, ALTEX, 22, Proceedings 5th World Congress 2005

Animal Care from Protozoa to Small Mammals by F. Barbara Orlans, Addison-Wesley, 1977

On the Web

Illustration: Shawn Gould/

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