- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2000

The experience of of dissecting a frog, fetal pig or earthworm was for decades a rite of passage in high school biology class. Today, in more and more schools, technology is becoming an alternative to the smell of formaldehyde and the snap of surgical gloves.
Some computer-savvy teen-agers apparently prefer to use a "virtual scalpel" a cursor on a computer to slice into an image of a frog rather than operate on a real amphibian.
Some teachers consider computers just another way to get youngsters excited about science and allow students to practice what they have learned, while a dismembered frog cannot be stitched up again for a second dissection.
"I really don't have any blanket objections to animal research, but I am not comfortable with a waste of life at this level. And if kids object, I am not going to force them," said Deborah Hill, who teaches biology to sophomores and seniors at a high school in Norman, Okla.
"In a regular biology class, you do a dissection very hurriedly, and a lot of times, it's to satisfy morbid curiosity," she said. "I don't know if they can fully appreciate the opportunity. It's a very tedious procedure to do it correctly."
Other teachers believe there is no substitute for the experience of an actual dissection, and the lesson, in addition to teaching biology, can foster respect for animals as complex organisms.
"Virtual and plastic models are idealized, and real rats are not. For one thing, they have no texture, and there are no anomalies in models," said Bob Brown, who teaches freshman biology at St. Francis High School in Louisville, Ky.
"It's also important to see comparisons between various sizes and ages and genders all being examined by various students in the same classroom at the same time."
He sees one substantial advantage to the virtual, however no mess.
The National Association of Biology Teachers in Reston, Va., agrees with teachers like Mr. Brown that dissection is a valuable classroom lesson. The association's position is that "no alternative can substitute for the actual experience of dissection or other use of animals and urges teachers to be aware of the limitations of alternatives." At the same time, the association encourages teachers to be sensitive to students who object.
The National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., advises teachers that dissection objectives must be appropriate to the maturity level of the students and that students' views should be considered.
Animal rights groups are promoting the alternatives by:
Targeting students on the World Wide Web and giving them advice on how to object without offending the teacher.
Exhibiting alternatives at regional and national conferences for science teachers.
Lending models, videos, computer disks and CD-ROMs to teachers and students at no cost. Digital dissections include cats, frogs, pigs, rats, worms, crayfish, clams, pigeons, sharks, starfish, sea urchins and grasshoppers.
Advertising in magazines and other publications that appeal to a teen audience.
In one ad campaign, the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, D.C., is promoting alternative dissections with a "spokesfrog." The frog has several piercings, a purple leotard and rides a snowboard. He asks students to use the alternatives so that he can "settle down, raise a family [and] find a nice pad in the lily pond in the 'burbs."
Kim Wolske, 18, a freshman at Connecticut College, excelled in high school science, even though she refused to dissect a fetal pig in her junior year advanced placement biology course. Her teacher at Valparaiso High School in Indiana allowed her to use a computer program instead.
"I'm a vegetarian. I view biology as the science of life, and I don't think you should kill things when you can use computer programs and diagrams," Miss Wolske said.
When the Humane Society began its loan program in 1996, it sent 38 items. In 1999, 272 computer disks, videos and other materials were shipped off. The National Anti-Vivisection Society, which started its program in 1993, sent 13 items out then, compared with 250 in 1999. The American Anti-Vivisection Society's Animalearn project shipped 14 high-tech tools in 1996, 40 last year.
A company that produces CD-ROMs of dissections, Digital Frog International Inc. of Ontario, Canada, sold 39 CD-ROMs when the business started in 1995. Last year, it sold 892.
Marketing Director Andrea Sangster attributes the increase to more computers in the classroom, more familiarity with the Internet, greater environmental consciousness and more animal rights activism and vegetarianism among young people.
Maryland and Illinois have laws that require schools to include information about alternatives in course listings.
Seven states Maine, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Louisiana and California have laws or policies that require schools to notify students and/or parents or guardians that dissection is planned for a class and allow students to opt out.

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