No student every needs to dissect anything, ever

My blood was a' boiling this morning after reading an article on edweek about an investigation done by the College Board:
... can a student get the same level of experience from a virtual dissection online, without actually smelling the formaldehyde or making a cut?

In recent years, the College Board, which authorizes AP classes and offers college-level material to high school students, has been trying to determine whether simulated labs in some science courses can take the place of real-world experiments. It’s a debate that online science providers and hands-on teachers are grappling with as well.

The very first comment on this post insists that virtual labs can never replace "real labs" (in this case, fetal pig dissection is the example used). From Dr. Brad Huff:

Simulations represent how the programmer thinks the real world should behave, not how the real world does respond when explored by a student.

Learning science is learning to be a skilled observer and accurate recorder of what is observed, not a participant in a computer game purporting to teach the nature of Nature.

Here is the thing:

Let's disregard the fact that the article mentions formaldehyde, which no one uses anymore...
1) Cost- dead animals are expensive, and disposing of these dead animals, year after year, means you have to keep ordering and keep buying them.
2) Evidence- What exactly do students get out of dissecting animals? DO we have empirical evidence that they make students better recorders of nature? That they motivate students to become scientists? Why don't we hold our previously held assumptions to the same scrutiny that we hold tradition?
3) Real Science -There are numerous physics, meteorologists, chemists, immunologists, that deal STRICTLY in models and simulations, and never hold a messy piece of nature in their hands. They are scientists in every bit and in fact, quite frankly, they are the scientists that are leading the way in contemporary sciences. Modelers get much more of the funding these days and make headlines far more often than zoologists. They need to learn how to understand and interpret a coder's "bias" (BTW- no coder works in isolation outside of subject matter experts and instructional designers these days) just as much as any experiment has bias and noisy data.

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Tags: dissection, education, labs, science, virtual

Comment by Tammy Moore on July 7, 2009 at 1:44pm
I teach an online science classes to high school students and have been exploring the use of virtual labs as well as hands on labs. I find I am asking myself some of these same tough questions. Dissections in my high school when I was a teen were quite gruesome. We anesthetized frogs so we could see the beating heart. The entire time, I naively believed we would be teen surgeons and stitch them back up for them to heal up for a perfect recovery. I was horrified when we were instructed to put them in the trash can on our way out the door. I asked the teacher what was going to happen when the ether wore off. I was told that they were just frogs and not to worry about it. I don't think that is the attitude we want to model for kids.

I tell my students that horror tale as I teach them to dissect their frogs which come preserved - no beating heart. I don't think I learned more seeing that beating heart than my kids learn now without a heart beat. Extend that a little, and it makes me wonder if the virtual dissection option is just the next logical extension of that.

One thing that would be nice to build in to a virtual dissection is some variability is specimens within the same program. With real dissections I have been amazed how different one specimen has been from another in size and the ease of finding organs. A virtual dissection could be designed with some of the same variability so the kids realize that real dissections don't always have the most ideal organ visibility. Other experiential details could be worked in too such as the operculums of larch perch are much harder to cut through than the operculums of smaller specimens. I have literally had to get out tin snips to have the leveraged cut needed to make the traditional dissection cuts. If the measure of the virtual experience is to be how closely it models the real world dissection experience, then I think that needs to be a part of it. I think we can all agree that skipping the experience of numb fingers and the smell of formalin (and perch - pew) is fine.

BTW, I have been working on a layered frog, earthworm, crayfish, and perch so that I can simulate the dissection within Elluminate during lectures. When I finish them, I intend to post them at LearnCentral for others to freely use.
Comment by Marjee Chmiel on July 7, 2009 at 2:50pm
Tammy- thanks for that note. I agree, when I was teaching science I felt like part of my role was to model a respect for the living world, and your story about your frog experience is horrifying. I think a lot of important anatomy lessons can be imparted digitally, and we probably have a lot more to do in that respect, but it amazes me that some folks are just so sure that actually dissections are valuable even though they have never stood up to rigorous evaluations, yet we insist on such evaluations on the virtual versions.

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