More and more students are interested in using software to perform “virtual” dissections instead of actual dissections on real animals. Now, more students and animal-rights activists are demanding the school districts create official policies of using virtual dissection as an alternative to real animal dissection. To date, California, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island require that students be told that they will have to dissect animals in their biology courses and that virtual dissections are an acceptable alternative.

Some biology teachers challenge the notion that even the best virtual programs are an adequate substitution for really feeling and holding tissue, muscles, organs, and so on. They say students do not understand how organs and muscles actually work in concert to keep an animal alive and performing its natural functions. They point out that while many students opt out of physical dissections in introductory courses, few–if any–opt out in advanced courses.

Some teachers support the use of dissection programs as a complement to a real dissection. Using pictures in the software can help students identify organs and learn more about their function, they say. Advocates of virtual dissections add that the videos produce a realistic experience–some even come with films that show real dissections, based on students’ computerized instructions. And they point out the virtue of saving the lives of frogs, crayfish, and other animals.

For a list of high-tech dissection alternatives put together by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, see http://www.pcrm.org/issues