Edited by Thomas MacIsaac (March 2013)
Dissections in North American Schools:
Animals have been used for centuries to train students, either through demonstration or through direct practice by the students themselves (Morton 1987). Animal dissections are widely practiced in North American middle and high school Biology classes as well as colleges and universities. Akpan and Andre (1999) explain that many biology teachers feel that dissections are an effective, hands-on method for students to learn about anatomy and physiology. These educators point out that dissection at the K-12 level is an invaluable teaching tool that cannot be replaced.
There is now a growing group of students, teachers, and animal advocates that have strong objections to dissection and the unnecessary harm and suffering that is put on the animals being dissected. There are those that believe that a student should always be given the choice whether he/she would like to participate in the dissection, and be given alternatives if they chose not to participate in the actual dissection. There are other groups that believe that dissections should be removed entirely from K-12 classrooms.
Over the past 15 years, as technology has become widespread and a daily part of our lives, discussions have begun about the potential for replacing animal dissection in the classroom with dissection simulation software. These discussions typically center around issues such as animal suffering and respect for animal life, the scientific case for alternatives, a student’s right to choose not to dissect, the impact of dissection on the quality of biology and anatomy classes, the cost of purchasing specimens every year, and the increased flexibility in student participation. There are those that believe that students with little or no interest in pursuing a career in science do not need to see dissect animals in order to understand basic physiology and anatomy. Those students who are planning on pursuing a career in Biology or medicine will potentially dissect at that level if curriculum required.
Benefits of Using Virtual Dissections:
There are many benefits to incorporating the virtual dissection in a school. The main benefit would have to be the saving of animal lives through the replacement of, or reduction of, dissections. R. Hill, creator of Froguts, even once said, “Froguts has perhaps done a better job at saving more frogs globally than some animal rights organizations have done in the past.” Animal advocates clearly agree that dissection simulations play an important role in saving animal lives. Frogs are the most commonly dissected animals below the university level, however many other species are used including cats, mice, rats, worms, dogs, rabbits, fetal pigs, and fishes. These animals may come from breeding facilities which cater to institutions and businesses that use animals in experiments; they may have been captured in the wild and sold to supply companies; or they could be stolen or abandoned companion animals that no one has claimed.
Dissection simulation designers benefit in a variety of ways by producing these dissection alternatives. In some cases, animal advocacy organizations make large purchases of dissection simulation software and donate it to teachers at local schools. Animal advocacy organizations have also worked to increase awareness of, and interest in, these dissection alternatives among teachers, students, and parents. As the dissection simulations improve, some educators may find them superior to the traditional dissection, as many of these simulations incorporate other information such as the ecology around, and life cycles of, the animal. Dissection simulations also teach students valuable computer skills. The students are also free to make a mistake in these virtual dissections without "ruining" the dissection as can occur in traditional dissections. The market for dissection alternatives, such as dissection simulations, continues to increase and the acceptability and popularity of these programs will continue to grow as the quality of the technology grows.
Another benefit that would appeal to all schools is the cost. Although the initial fee for the program, or the computers themselves, can be high, the long term cost would be a great deal more economical. The fact that these programs can be used over and over, from one year to the next, is far more financially responsible then purchasing specimens from a supplier every year. Besides the financial benefits, there is the flexibility a virtual dissection provides to a student and teacher. If a student needs to work at a slower pace or review the dissection they can do so with a virtual dissection. The teacher does not have to worry that a student was away for the dissection because they will be able to complete the virtual dissection on their own time. Another benefit to virtual dissections is that they are an offering to different learners. They can aid visual learners with their photos and videos, auditory learners because of the narrative that can accompany most virtual dissections and help those learners that need more time to understand the topic. There is the opportunity with these dissection simulators, and online dissections, to study animals and humans that were not possible because of cost and availability.
Froguts is an interactive simulation program offering a 3D virtual dissection and biology lesson. The software includes educational instruction and a wide range of point-and-click surgical and observation tools that are divided into tutorial steps. When you look at an exposed part of a specimen using the virtual magnifying glass, the name of the organ appears right over it which makes identification easier. The slider bars allow you to spin specimens in 3D and to look at them from different angles and views. In addition to the frog dissection, Froguts also has labs on the following specimens: squid, starfish, cow eye, owl pellet, fetal pig.
Watch as someone virtually dissects the frog! 
Try the demo for yourself at the following site: 
The Digital Frog 2.5
The Digital Frog 2.5 engages students with an interactive, virtual dissection. Animations and interactions allow students to see how the frog's body works, from blood pumping through the heart, to joints that can be built up and moved by the user. Full-screen video, animation, sounds, narration, in-depth text and still images bring teaching dissection and anatomy to life. The Dissection module allows students to perform an entire frog dissection. They can make cuts with a "digital scalpel" and then see the actual cuts with full-screen videos. Unlike a real dissection, mistakes are easily corrected.
A 2001 study at George Mason University compared virtual frog dissection (using The Digital Frog 2) and concluded that "multimedia-based virtual dissection was more effective than hands-on dissection in helping students learn about frog anatomy. Moreover this result was achieved when the time available for the virtual dissection was approximately 44% less than that available for hands-on dissection".
Read the abstract to that study here:
Dissection Works is comprised of five interactive computer dissection simulations, including the frog, crayfish, perch, earthworm and fetal pig. Through the use of detailed, digitized images of actual dissections, movies, schematics, tests, labels, glossary with pronunciations and more, students are able to dissect animals right on the computer screen. If an error is made, they may simply redo the dissection from any part of the program.
Cow's Eye Dissection:
This resource includes a step-by-step guide of a cow';s eye dissection, hints and tips, a cow eye primer, and a glossary of terms. Cow eye dissections are popular because of the similarity to the human eye. See the cornea, iris, pupil, connecting muscles and veins, and other features. Although this resource is meant to enhance the experience of a dissection, the excellent images could easily replace the need for an actual dissection. 
Virtual eye Dissection: The Anatomy of an Eye
This website is a very basic virtual dissection of an eyeball designed for younger students. 
Reasons for Change:
One of PETA's undercover investigation of one major biological supply company exposed gross cruelties to live animals received and killed at the facility. PETA investigators documented cases of animals being removed from gas chambers and injected with formaldehyde without first being checked for vital signs (a violation of the Animal Welfare Act). PETA has been a strong advocate for virtual dissections, and dissection alternatives. They believe that dissections should be cut outand have offered many alternatives to dissections and reasons why we should stop dissecting.
Numerous studies have compared animal dissection simulations to actual animal dissections. Kinzie, Strauss, and Foss (1993) designed and evaluated an educational simulation of frog dissection. Their statistical analysis indicated that their dissection simulation was at least as effective as actual dissections in promoting learning about frog anatomy and dissection procedures (Kinzie, Strauss, & Foss, 1993). Dissection simulations could possibly be more efficient by achieving similar results while saving a significant amount of instructional time and providing more flexibility for the student in learning. Depending on the animal used for dissection, and the availability of computers within the classroom or school , dissection simulations may even be more economical than actual dissections. This may indicate a strong potential for dissection simulation to replace actual dissection in K-12 education.
Ethics should be part of the education of all children, and dissections should not be conducted in the absence of ethical discussion about the origins of the animals and the moral implications of using them. Students should be informed of the specifics regarding the sources of animals used in the classroom, including methods used for capturing, transporting, handling, and killing the animals. All procurement of animals for dissection should be from ethical sources, such as animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Guardian-consent programs should be established so that cats (and other companion animals) who have died, or been euthanized for medical or humane reasons, can be donated from shelters or veterinary clinics to schools for educational use.
Dissection of species whose populations are known to be over exploited and/or in decline (e.g., leopard frogs, bullfrogs, spiny dogfish sharks) should be discontinued. Biological supply companies should be required to conduct environmental impact assessments prior to collecting from wild animal populations.
The Future of Dissections:
As technology continues to improve at a rapid pace, so to will the applications for virtual and online dissections. Many schools have class sets of iPads, or iPods, and most students have access to iPhones and other hand held electronic devices. With the introduction of these devices, a dissection can be carried on anywhere the student chooses with a downloaded application. The dissection does not have to be in the traditional lab environment anymore. Students will be able to review the lab as many times as they feel necessary to truly learn and understand the animals they are studying. A recent article in the New York Times, talked about medical students using virtual 3D glasses to study virtual cadavers. This technology allowed the students to manipulate the cadaver, remove organs, and then put them back; an option not available in the traditional dissection of a cadaver.
Teaching Anatomy in the 21st Centuryis an amazing look at where virtual dissections are going and the technology that is available. The virtual dissection table allows the students to learn about the human body and manipulate in a way that is impossible with a real cadaver. Now real cadavers will not be replaced in Medical Schools but the fact that there are options in medical school should make virtual dissection options in the middle and hih schools easier to be accepted as a vviable and educationally sound option.
Video: Classroom Dissections VS Virtual Dissections:
Video by James Lewis 2016
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