Of Frog and Mice: Dissection Questioned
The Star Tribune
January 21, 2004
Because of a sophomore girl's refusal to dissect a mouse in science class, Anoka High School administrators are joining a quest by fellow educators in Minnesota and elsewhere to find alternatives to the traditional lesson.
Ashley Curtis, 15, said she thinks dissection is cruel, and last week she left school on the day when dissection was scheduled. As a result, she failed the lab exercise.
Principal Linda Anderson said Tuesday that she sees a need to give Curtis and other students like her an alternative to dissection, especially because the science class Curtis is taking soon will become a required class at Anoka High. "We'll be working toward some satisfactory resolution to this issue," Anderson said.
Anoka High School is one of the state's largest, with 2,600 students.
Dissections of mice, frogs, earthworms and other specimens have been an adolescent rite of passage and a staple in biology classrooms since the 1950s.
Dissections have come under fire in recent years by animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
More schools in Minnesota and across the country are offering other methods to teach the science of life, said Clark Erickson, the Minnesota Department of Education's science education specialist. Virtual dissection programs such as http://www.froguts.com attempt to simulate the same kind of active learning that a real specimen offers. In other classrooms, plastic models have replaced the earthworms, pig fetuses and frogs that are most commonly dissected. Still other schools let students who object to dissection watch while their lab partners do the duty.
Concerns about animal cruelty aside, dissection has come under additional scrutiny because of its cost and the chemicals involved, Erickson said. Real dissections are more expensive than virtual dissections, he said, and often the dead animals are preserved in harsh chemicals that can be hazardous in the classroom. Moreover, the lesson, while good for nostalgia, is becoming an outdated teaching tool, he said.
"That's what everyone references as adults: 'Do you remember when we did that in biology?' It used to be that biology was about parts and naming the parts of things. Today, it's moved toward a biochemical study," Erickson said. "Dissection lends itself back to the name-the-parts-thing."
However, Linda Turnquist is among the biology teachers who say there is no comparison to studying life in the flesh. At her school -- Eden Prairie High -- some students choose virtual dissection because they are concerned about animal rights. For 30 years, she has been using live frogs whose brains have been destroyed so they don't feel anything, she said. Their hearts are beating so students can see how the organs work and how big the lungs get when they are fully inflated. The lesson captures students' attention and their imagination, Turnquist said. "They're spellbound. You can hear a pin drop in here, it's so quiet."
For Curtis, the issue is simple.
"I don't think any animal should go through any suffering for education. That's kind of violent," she said. Her dedication to animals is apparent at home, where she dreams of becoming a veterinarian and cares for her 10 pets: three rabbits, a cat, two dogs, two mice, a guinea pig and a hamster. Her love for animals took a more serious turn last year, when she became a vegetarian. She also did a class report on horse slaughtering that piqued her interest in animal-rights issues.
The seeds of the dissection controversy were sown last fall, when Curtis elected to take general science, which includes biology, over a horticulture course. Although the class syllabus stated that dissection was a part of the class, she didn't realize that until she was too far along in the course to switch classes.
Curtis said she repeatedly spoke to her teacher about her concerns and that he told her that she did not have to participate, but if she didn't, she would lose points for the lab. She wasn't given any other choice, she said. The teacher, Rollie Neist, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Concerned about her grade and the larger issue, Curtis took her case to the school board last week. Toting a handmade poster with pictures of animals and the words "Dissection=Violence," she appealed to board members for an alternative to doing dissections. When Dissection Day arrived last Friday, nothing had been resolved. At 7:45 a.m., Curtis went to school to turn in a homework assignment for another class, and then she walked out of the building.
Outside, she and her mother, Tracy Curtis, stood in front of the high school waving anti-dissection signs in front of late-arriving students and their parents. After about an hour of demonstrating outside the school and on a nearby street corner, she went home.
Anderson, the school principal, said she is working with the science teacher to come up with a comparable assignment that Curtis can do to make up the points that she missed by sitting out the dissection. Anderson also said that she plans to talk to school district officials to address the larger issues concerning dissection and alternative lessons.
As for Curtis, who said that other students supported her efforts but didn't join her because they didn't want to hurt their grades, she is looking into starting an animal-rights group at her school.
"I'm usually a really shy person in school and no one really notices me. A lot of people say you can't change anything," she said. "But if I stand up and try to get the issue noticed, I can get it changed."
The Star Tribune
January 21, 2004
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