Animal-rights organizations are using software donations and other outreach efforts to spur interest in the use of "virtual dissection" tools among schools–adding a new chapter in the debate over whether these tools offer a viable option for teaching biology.

It’s not just concern for the squeamish biology students who wince at the feel and the smell of cutting into a formaldehyde-soaked animal that is driving the virtual-dissection trend in schools. Think about the frog, the pig, or even the rat: That’s the message that animal-rights activists in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle had in mind when they recently donated interactive software that replicates a frog dissection to nearby Wheeling Park High School.

Marilyn Grindley, a member of the Ohio County, W.Va., Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said dissecting animals "desensitizes kids. It tells them that we do not have any respect for any animal." She and others want to end the practice.

Spurred on by the SPCA and other groups, mandates in 14 states–including Virginia and Maryland–that allow biology students to opt out of dissection without jeopardizing their grades are fueling interest in virtual dissection as an alternative for teaching anatomy.

Grindley and fellow SPCA member Rebecca Goth say virtual dissection software such as The Digital Frog, the program they donated, offers an alternative to students who find dissection repulsive, and they can even save schools money.

But some educators, such as Christopher Perillo, a science teacher in Kenosha, Wis., don’t buy it. He says nothing can duplicate the smell, feel, and texture of cutting into a real frog.

"It’s not the same as the real thing," Perillo said. "To actually cut through the tissue, see how the skin layers feel, the textures, the way the organs look inside the body, I think that can’t be duplicated. It’s like trying to become a gardener without touching the dirt."

The debate over virtual dissection software has been raging in schools for some time (see "‘Digital dissection’ draws debate in schools"). But animal rights’ groups have raised it up a notch by touting software programs as a more ethical alternative to traditional dissection.

Besides the SPCA, the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS)–a Chicago-based nonprofit organization–also is dedicated to this cause. NAVS sponsors the Biology Education Advancement Program (BioLEAP), a library of state-of-the-art dissection alternatives that are available on a free loan basis to students, teachers, school boards, and others interested in advancing science education without harming animals.

Although NAVS does not produce its own software, the group does promote The Digital Frog and other programs from sources such as Dissection Works, Thieme Interactive, Ventura Educational Systems, the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and Nebraska Scientific.

"Dissection teaches students that animal life is expendable and unimportant. … Many students who have the potential to become great scientists or health-care professionals may be discouraged to pursue further studies in the sciences, because they do not wish to take part in senseless killing," says Jamie Aitchison, program associate for NAVS. "BioLEAP puts the life back in life science."

NAVS also believes there are serious health risks that go along with normal dissection. By exposing skin or allowing students to inhale fumes from hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde, traditional dissections make students susceptible to throat, lung, and nasal cancer, eye damage, asthma attacks, and bronchitis, the group says. If not disposed of properly, these potentially dangerous chemicals can cause harm to the environment as well. "Dissection is also expensive and wasteful," says Aitchison. "A comparison of the costs for each class of students using frog specimens, for example, versus an alternative that can be used repeatedly, usually demonstrates a significant cost savings by investing in non-animal alternatives."

NAVS claims that recent studies have shown the test scores of students who have used virtual dissection alternatives equal or surpass those of students who have participated in traditional dissection. 
West Virginia is not one of the 14 opt-out states for dissections. But now that biology is a required class in West Virginia, virtual dissection is becoming an attractive option to some educators there.

Patrick Durkin, science department chair at Wheeling Park High School, said the number of students enrolled in biology will increase to about 400 this fall. Before, about 150 students studied biology each year.

With a single pig costing upward of $25 and a frog around $6, the Digital Frog program has the potential to save the school some money, though not a lot. Wheeling Park spends about $1,000 a year on frogs alone, he said.

By comparison, digital dissection software can be purchased for less than $1,500 from numerous companies.

In addition to The Digital Frog, schools have plenty of software to choose from, including Froguts, developed by Froguts Inc. founders Richard Hill and David Hughes, and V-Frog, developed by Tactus Technologies.

Goth and Grindley worked through the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, which negotiated with Digital Frog International in Ontario, Canada, for the SPCA to buy The Digital Frog at a reduced price of about $500.

The committee has brokered similar deals for school systems in New York and California, said Dr. John Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the nonprofit group that promotes alternatives to animal research.

Pippin said the move away from dissecting real animals mirrors what’s been happening on college campuses over the past 25 years. In 1982, 107 of 124 medical schools across the country used real animals to teach anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and surgery. Today, only eight of 154 accredited medical schools still do.

Wheeling Park’s Durkin said it wasn’t saving cash or sparing the lives of animals that appealed to him. With plans to phase out the use of real frogs over the next couple of years, Durkin said the program will enable students to spend more time on dissection outside of class.

Using a digital scalpel, students make cuts on an image on a full-screen video. Animations and interactions also allow students to see how the body works–from blood pumping through the heart to building joints that move.

And unlike a real dissection, mistakes can be easily corrected and steps repeated to reinforce lessons.

Only those students who go on to medical school will likely ever work with human cadavers, but Pippin said he doesn’t expect virtual software to ever replace medical schools’ use of human cadavers "unless we get to the point where cadavers are not available."

"Hands-on experience with a human being burns in your brain all the things you need to learn … but it gives you a profound respect for human life," he said. "When you kill an animal for a lab, you’re wasting a life, and that’s not a message you want students to learn."

Links:

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

National Anti-Vivisection Society

Digital Frog International

Froguts Inc.

Tactus Technologies