‘Digital dissection’ draws debate in schools

Debate over the ethicality and necessity of dissection using real specimens in biology classrooms has been an issue for decades. Technological substitutes for dissection have been available for some time, but now advances in multimedia technology are making virtual dissection more accurate and realistic than ever.

Biology teachers increasingly are using dissection simulation software and web-based dissection labs, replacing the standard frog and scalpel with a mouse and keyboard.

Programs such as Drylab Dissections and Catworks take students through an actual dissection using realistic graphics and high-resolution photography, as well as full-motion video. Each CD-ROM or networked program takes students step-by step through the dissection process. Programs exist for many subjects, including frogs, earthworms, rats, fetal pigs, and even cats.

Other programs, such as Digital Frog 2 and Visifrog, use high-quality computer animation to show students a simulation of an animal dissection. Recently, animal rights organizations such as the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) have started free-of-charge loan programs through which schools can check out software that does not rely on real animal subjects, such as the computer-animated Digital Frog 2 program.

Web-based alternatives to actual dissection have become more readily available as well. Students can now log on to free sites such as “The Interactive Frog Dissection: An Online Tutorial” and point-and-click their way through a dissection displayed in real-time video.

Supporters of high-tech alternatives to actual dissection claim the new programs are more cost-effective and easier to use than the traditional methods.

“I really don’t have any blanket objection to animal research, but I am not comfortable with the waste of life at this level. And if the kids object, I am not going to force them,” said Deborah Hill, a high school biology teacher in Norman, Okla.

“In my seventh grade life science class last year, our final project was a frog dissection, and several students refused to do it,” said John Pedersen, a seventh grade biology teacher for South Middle School in Nampa, Idaho. “So I used the loan program last year and one-quarter of the students opted to use it instead. The students who used the computers ended up testing far better on the material than those who did the actual dissection.”

Programs like Digital Frog 2 use a full range of multimedia technologies, such as full-screen video, animation, sounds, narration, in-depth text, and still images, to approximate the experience of dissecting an actual frog.

Students make their own “cuts” with the click of a mouse, eliminating the mess, cost, and loss of life some teachers complain about. They use the mouse to make virtual “incisions” and are asked to locate and identify organs inside their virtual specimen.

“I do think ethics come into play at this level, and in my experience, those who use computer models are just as proficient, at least at the level I teach,” said Pedersen. “Honestly, even our medical research is leaning more and more towards computer modeling.”

One advantage is that mistakes are easily correctable on computer-generated specimens. “If a student makes a mistake, it can ruin the dissection process. With this software, students can easily correct their mistakes,” said Andrea Sangster, marketing manager for Digital Frog International. Sangster also believes her product is far more cost-effective for schools than it would be to purchase actual frog specimens for each student. “Kids can use this over and over again,” she said.

Pricing for the Digital Frog 2 is $170 for a single-user version with one CD-ROM, complete with teacher and students workbooks. Schools also have the option to buy building site licenses for an unlimited number of users for $899.

In comparison, real frogs can cost $58 for packages of 10 specimens and must be purchased for every class each year, although Sangster says prices can vary depending on the number of students per specimen and frog species.

Many science teachers object to the use of simulation programs as substitutes for hands-on dissections, however.

“Virtual images don’t accurately represent the individual parts, and kids don’t get to see the variation between specimens,” said David Klindienst, science coordinator for Pennsylvania’s State College Area High School.

“So much of the world now is two-dimensional or virtual, and you just don’t gain an appreciation for the beauty and complexity of living things. With computer programs, students are removed from the organism and can’t really experience it as deeply,” Klindienst added.

The National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) in Reston, Va., endorses hands-on dissection over technological alternatives.

“There is no substitution for reality. Kids gain an understanding of how an organism is put together through hands-on experience, and no matter how good a program is, it won’t give you a good understanding of a three-dimensional organism,” said the NABT’s executive director, Wayne Carley.

Carley also rejects the idea that computer models are more economical than actual dissections. “The cost is less important than the educational benefit, and the benefit is so much greater with a real animal that the cost is more than justified,” he said.

Carley compares the use of software models to a virtual vacation. “Let’s say you want to go see Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon. And the travel agent hands you a CD-ROM called ‘The American West.’ It is just not the same as being there,” he explained.

But teachers who have used programs like Digital Frog 2 believe the benefits of the computer experience outweigh those of actual dissection. “I’ll always give students an option of whether or not to dissect. It’s a matter of showing compassion to the kids and showing them what life is, and how to value it,” Pedersen said.

Options are necessary in the classroom setting, agrees Carley. The NABT “is not opposed to these programs in the right setting, or as a supplement to actual dissection, but that is a decision that should be left up to teachers,” he said.

MIT’s technology guru, Nicholas Negroponte, expressed hope for the future of computer modeling in an editorial in Being Digital: “Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with frog-like behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.”

Digital Frog International

National Anti-Vivisection Society

National Association of Biology Teachers

Being Digital

Interactiuve Frog Dissection: An Online Tutorial

eSchool News Staff

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