Transforming the meaning of animals in the high school classroom
by TRACY BASILE, adjunct professor at Pace University
Bonnie Berenger used to fill her classroom with live animals: an iguana, a chameleon, gerbils, mice, even a rat saved from becoming a snake's dinner at a local pet store. Students often brought her their cast-offs. She cared for them all, transporting the animals back and forth to her home on weekends, holidays and vacations, and weaving them into as many lesson plans as possible. In addition to her post as biology teacher at Hunterdon Central High School in Flemington, N.J., Berenger volunteered to be the advisor to the school's environmental club.
When it came time to lead laboratory class dissections of frogs or fetal pigs, however, she quickly reached a point of saturation. "I saw many unethical practices occurring in other science classrooms, and morally, I just couldn't do it anymore," says Berenger, who notes that she observed students violating animals with scalpels and dissecting probes. A growing number of students expressed to her that they were bothered and discouraged by the process, too. This compelled her to find out how other students felt, and the more teenagers she spoke to, the more obvious it became that Hunterdon High needed a non-dissection biology course.
So, in 2000, Berenger and a colleague designed one. They used a virtual CD program, movies, human plastic models that students can take apart and manipulate, and interactive labs in which students test human functions, such as heart rates. After a few months, they won the support of their supervisor. Moreover, the course quickly became more popular than the traditional biology course at Hunterdon High, and has earned the reputation that, "if you take non-dissection, you learn more."
Around the same time that Berenger began teaching only non-dissection biology courses, she made the decision not to have live animals in her classroom and brought them all home instead. "I feel that seeing an animal caged devalues the organism and encourages control over the species. It perpetuates the idea that you can take an animal out of its ecosystem, give it food and water, and that's okay. "Take gerbils, for example. What is their natural habitat? Where do they come from? What are their natural behaviors?" she asks. The first image that comes to mind for most of us is not the desert, but a glass tank furnished with shavings, a few toys and a wheel.
Currently, New Jersey's science standards are molecular-based. Consequently, students spend a great deal of time learning about DNA, protein synthesis and genetics. "That fosters a huge disconnect between themselves and the natural world," Berenger says. She worries that "students have lost any tangible understanding of their world, and the neighbors with whom they share it." Instead, she explains, "they are forced to abstractly dissect these creatures without even an appreciation for the organism's niche within the fine threads that weave us all together in the same web."
To counter this perception, Berenger teaches a unit on bioethics that focuses on the use of animals in research. She also takes her students outside as often as possible. Her school has a stream and pond that are just right for performing macro-invertebrate studies and contemplating the effect that humans have on what Berenger refers to as our "shared" spaces, which are often visited by white-tailed deer, heron, snapping turtles and flocks of Canada geese.
With 12 years of experience in the field, Berenger has a piece of advice for teachers who are interested in making similar changes: "Let your reputation speak for itself. If you are a solid teacher who can remain objective in the classroom, then your students, parents, peers and administrators will support you. Present factual, unbiased information and you will be fine."
The Digital Frog
More and more teachers are turning to technology in the biology classroom, to the benefit of both students and animals. Incorporating features such as full-screen video, animation and interactive quizzes, newly released version 2.5 software from Digital Frog International allows middle school to college-aged students to "open up" a frog with a digital scalpel, as well as see how a live frog's body works. A section on ecology provides a valuable reminder that biology is the study of living organisms.
The Digital Frog program also includes a comprehensive section that teaches amphibian anatomy and physiology, with human anatomy comparisons. In fact, a recent study by Ph.D. candidate Christine Youngblut concluded that the virtual model is more effective than hands-on dissection in teaching students about the frog's anatomy. To learn more about this wonderful software, please visit www.digitalfrog.com.