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Opting In

The debate on whether to use dissection or computer simulations for biology labs continues is ongoing. While many documented studies now indicate that student attitudes are negatively affected by required dissection, teachers’ right to choose the method of instruction is also important. One way to deal with these issues is to adopt an “opt-in only” dissection policy.

Such a policy allows dissection labs to be offered as an extra activity that students can opt to participate in. There is no “extra credit” given. It is an “extra learning” opportunity for those students who are interested.

Listed below are the main benefits of an opt-in only dissection policy. It is hoped that this might give teachers and their schools some ideas for a new way of looking at dissection policies.

  1. Only students who are motivated to do extra learning will sign up for the dissection lab, making it likely that students will approach the lab in an academic manner. This helps to eliminate reluctant, non-engaged lab partners and macabre-type exploration of stabbing and cutting which, for some students, obliterates the hands-on scientific investigation and is undesirable in a school striving to be violence-free.
  2. With a smaller and more dedicated group of students, the teacher is more able to direct a quality lab, so that dissections are performed properly and student learning is maximized.
  3. The smaller number of students makes it easier to provide proper safety instructions, protective gear and parental consent forms with hazards and safety precautions outlined.
  4. This policy respects student’s rights and cultural traditions – for example, students whose religion forbids them from touching certain meats.
  5. As opposed to a total ban on dissection, a teacher’s right to offer a dissection lab is still respected.
  6. Computer-based alternatives give students a motivating opportunity to further develop and become comfortable with crucial technology skills so pervasively utilized in the sciences. Increasingly, the development of technological skills is more immediately critical than hands-on experience with tissue, even for self-declared pre-med students.
  7. Smaller numbers of students participating in dissection labs helps lessen the impact on wild species, especially those known to be over-exploited and/or in decline (e.g., leopard frogs, bullfrogs, spiny dogfish sharks), thus avoiding conflict with environmental protection lessons and ethics.
  8. Elimination of required dissection is more inline with current bioethics calling for no needless use of animals, when alternatives exist. Canadian universities currently support the Canadian Council for Animal Care standards which encourage the use of alternatives whenever possible.
  9. Alternatives to dissection are now readily available and are less expensive in the long term than dissection specimens. Many alternatives require only a one-time CD-ROM or video purchase, or are available online at no cost.
  10. The use of alternatives to dissection has been accompanied by studies to assess their effectiveness as learning tools. Dozens of these studies, summarized in The Use of Animals in Higher Education, demonstrate that alternatives result in equivalent or better performance than hands-on dissection.
  11. Required labs should represent the best in education. Too often, dissection involves only observation and memorization. Only infrequently are students challenged with forming hypotheses or collecting and interpreting data in a dissection lab. Dissection became popular in high school before the advent of national standards, constructionist learning, multiple intelligences and learning styles; and before much was taught at the high school level about cell biology, molecular genetics and biochemistry. It can be argued that dissection labs are not compelling enough in today’s educational landscape to be required of all biology students.
  12. Dissection labs sometimes convince students, especially girls, to opt out of a career in biology. For many older citizens, their most vivid recollection of high school science education is a negative one, remembered mostly for its repugnant smells and associations, not for what was learned there. An opt-in only dissection lab eliminates these negative associations and the needless screening out of highly compassionate students.

adapted from an article by Patty Finch