A Kinder Cut: Students and Virtual Dissections
Standard Operating Procedure
It's something you never forgot from your high school biology class: The stench of chemical preservatives seeping from a plastic bag, slit open. A dead animal lay revealed on the desk; perhaps a cat, or frog, or even a baby pig. Looking around the room, you noticed that some of your classmates appeared queasy. Others eagerly awaited the teacher's instructions to pick up a knife.
Animal dissections have always been an important part of biology class. Eagerly anticipated by some students as the ultimate in "hands on" instruction, they are also dreaded by those who voice ethical concerns about the mutilation of innocent creatures.
Now, a state legislature is poised to decide whether students will be able to voice their objections to use of the scalpel. Massachusetts lawmakers are due to give consideration to a bill that would allow students "not to participate" in dissections, with a parent's approval.
California, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island already have such laws on the books. Similar legislation is pending or about to be introduced in Illinois and New Jersey.
Click Instead of Cut
"Alternatives are so advanced now that science teachers are not only accepting of them, they are excited by them," says Dr. Theodora Capaldo, President of the Ethical Science and Education Coalition. She's referring to new CD-ROM software that allows students to conduct "virtual" dissections with the click - not the cut - of a mouse.
"Do you smell it and feel it? No," acknowledges Linda Petty of the National Anti-Vivisection Society based in Chicago. "But there've been studies done showing students learn as much using alternatives."
"It's interactive," says Stephanie Cowie, a California teacher who uses the new software in her classes. "They can do it as many times as they have to and you can't do that with live animals where you get one shot and that's it."
Science Teachers Opposed; Students Back Choice
Nevertheless, teachers unions and associations, including The National Association of Biology Teachers, remain opposed to dissection alternatives. The fear, some say, is that teachers will lose important discretionary powers in the classroom.
"This bill is not anti-dissection," maintains Capaldo, whose organization is a key supporter of the Massachusetts legislation. "Students who want to dissect still have the option. It's a matter of choice."
Indeed, several Massachusetts students interviewed said that while they supported students' right to choose, they would still opt to dissect an animal in class.
"I'd dissect, personally," said Sam L., a 10th grader. "I mean, I'm eating a steak burrito and wearing leather shoes right now."
"If people have personal problems with it, they shouldn't have to do it," counters Aaron R., also a 10th grader.
Supporters of the bill to provide dissection choice say that many students have been penalized for objecting to animal dissections, and in some cases forced to drop biology class. They argue that girls, in particular, may lose interest in science as a result.
"Studies tell us that the majority of students opposing dissection are female," notes Dr. Capaldo. "It's not based on squeamishness; it's an ethical issue for them. Unfortunately, when not allowed an alternative, they get turned off to science."
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