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Cutting edge biology

In many schools, dissections are giving way to computer simulations

Every spring for 20 years, a dozen grass frogs sacrificed their lives for Betty Villiard's biology class. As her King Philip Regional High School students hacked at the carcasses, she chased away thoughts that maybe there was a better way to teach vertebrate biology. She became more uncomfortable when she learned at a conference that the world's frog population is edging toward extinction. "Because they're skin breathers, they're absorbing our toxins and dying," Villiard said. "My ability to justify those frog dissections got harder."


Last year she decided: enough. She experimented with computer software and found Digital Frog, where students use virtual scalpels to perform virtual examinations. Her students said "cool" and Villiard believed that in her small way, she had slowed an ecological train wreck.

The ritual of dismemberment is waning in US high schools, undone by ethical, environmental, and financial concerns largely met by new software. Exploring pig innards, some teachers say, doesn't fit into current state mandates that require students to learn more biotechnology and engineering.

"Dissection is no longer cutting edge," said Daniel James, vice president of Carolina Biological Supply Co. in Burlington, N.C., one of the country's largest specimen supply houses. "Anytime [schools] offer something new, you have to cannibalize something old."

Some teachers wonder how much students learned from the decades-old practice of slicing cows' eyes. "What do they remember about dissection, other than ripping the poor thing apart?" said Nick Micozzi, science coordinator for the Plymouth public schools. His high schools stopped dissecting a decade ago, as did schools in Newton.

The practice still has adherents, but science teachers, their associations, and animal rights activists agree that teachers increasingly are forgoing it. Supply houses such as Carolina also say they are are shipping fewer preserved specimens to high schools, but won't give details.

Susan Offner of Lexington High School remains a purist. The biology teacher of 32 years bemoans the loss of an important teaching tool that is also an adolescent rite of passage. She suggests that the animal rights movement's argument that dissection is inhumane has dissuaded students who might have pursued science.

"Dissection gives reality to the words," Offner said. She rejects the notion that a computer program can replicate reality. "We're trying to teach about the real world, the natural world."

The real thing might turn a scalpel-shy student into a science major, she said. One of Offner's students from last year, Shyam ViMal, began dissecting a fetal pig in disgust. The 16-year-old is a vegetarian. But his lab partner wielding the knife urged him to poke around the insides. "Doing it ourselves we were able to experience it a lot better," ViMal said, who has been transformed. "We were able to see things ourselves. I want to do something in the medical field."

Still, the Boston-based Ethical Science and Education Coalition wants to convince teachers that science can be taught without death. The coalition, along with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is trying to win over students who might then pressure their teachers. "Students may take [biology] and be traumatized by the experience because they're doing something . . . abhorrent to their values," said Theo Capaldo, the coalition's president.

The two groups have pressed eight states to pass laws requiring teachers to provide alternatives if a student objects, but similar bills have failed repeatedly in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has voiced consistent opposition.

"Bills like this have made squeamishness fashionable," Offner said. "If you let a kid opt out, you can imagine the situation. It would be an act of courage for a girl to dissect."

High school biology today knits together genetics, evolution, and the intimate relationship of cells to explain environmental symbiosis. Classes no longer jump from photosynthesis to the skeletal system, but build toward explaining biotechnology and engineering systems, the stuff of MCAS science tests. For now, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System does not test classic biology material, but state education officials said they will do so in the future.

Nationwide, the emphasis is on having students perform experiments on living creatures such as cells and plants, said Anne Tweed, president-elect of the National Science Teachers Association. "In economically hard times are you going to pay several hundred dollars to do a dissection," she asked, "or a $50 kit [that lets students] insert a glow-in-the-dark gene into bacteria?" The latter, she said, more closely mirrors what real scientists do.

In tough budget times, dissection also has become an increasingly expensive exercise.

In 1990, Carolina Supply sold an 11- to 13-inch pig embryo for $7.80. Today that specimen costs $14.95. A plain cat without dyed veins and arteries rose by $7.55, to $29.50. At the same time, districts have less to spend. A decade ago Plymouth schools budgeted $400 to buy cat or pig specimens for 800 students, Micozzi said. This year, he said, Plymouth Middle School was given just $10,000 to spend for all science supplies for 1,000 children.

The costs don't stop once the cutting starts. Many specimens are fixed in formalin, which is highly flammable, or in formaldehyde, a carcinogen, according to the federal government. Schools can't simply wash the pungent liquids down the drain or discard dissection materials in the trash. They must contract with environmental cleanup firms that burn medical waste. Clean Harbors Environmental Services Co. in Braintree charges $400 to haul off one 55-gallon drum of waste. Large schools can fill four drums.

Companies such as Carolina now fix specimens in environmentally friendly formulas, but that, too, has increased costs. A cat preserved without formaldehyde can sell for $43.50. In contrast, a software subscription costs about $260 and can be used for years.

And unlike lifeless bodies, software is forgiving, students say. When Wesley Cameron, a King Philip junior, first dissected a frog in eighth grade, "I made eight million cuts; I cut too deep." The result? Ribbons. Last year the 16-year-old used Villiard's software and found organs he had never seen before. "You can keep repeating if you don't get it."

Computer-savvy students expect sophistication at school, said Villiard, who is trying to persuade colleagues such as Richard Pultz to use Digital Frog.

This year, with only $400 to spend on anatomy supplies, Pultz scrounged in King Philip's old science prep room for specimens. He found two boxes of cats, one bag of frogs, and some crickets in a jar. They had been sitting there for months, maybe more. Pultz held the jar up to the light. "They're OK, I think," he said.

Just in case, Villiard downloaded a copy of Digital Frog onto Pultz's computer. "Five years from now," she said confidently, "it's all going to be like this."

Suzanne Sataline can be reached at

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