Teaching Life Without the Knife
Nov. 01, 2000
Kermit the Frog, the marvelous Muppet, often bemoans, "It's not easy being green." He could also add, "It's not easy being a frog," since only eight states have passed laws ensuring students the right to refuse to dissect frogs and other animals. However, there are steady signs of progress as more and more educators, legislators, administrators, students, and parents are hopping onto the dissection choice bandwagon.
California , Illinois , Maryland , Louisiana , New York , Rhode Island , Florida , and Pennsylvania currently have dissection choice laws. The Illinois law, passed just this year, received unanimous support from the state's Education Committee. Several other states, including Maine , Texas , Ohio , and Virginia , have state or district policies to similar effect. However, policies set by state departments of education often present only suggestions, not enforceable requirements, which then leaves the issue between individual students and teachers.
In Massachusetts , House Bill 1904?the student dissection choice bill?was snagged by delays and remained unpassed when the legislature adjourned July 31. When the next legislative session begins, the Ethical Science and Education Coalition (ESEC), the educational affiliate of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), will be among the first "back up on the Hill," promises ESEC and NEAVS President Theodora Capaldo, Ed.D. "Protecting students' rights to conscientious objection is a critical first step in developing a humane ethic in one's relationship with animals."
The consequences of forced dissection can be severe, says Capaldo, a psychologist. Students' experiences run the gamut from nightmares, avoidance of further science classes, and feelings of helplessness, to distancing of compassion for animals. Kathy Lutz, a former biology major who is now an ESEC education specialist, notes that it's not only the conscientious objectors who suffer, "Every student who is 'turned off' from science by being forced to dissect is a loss for the field." And, sadly, students who oppose dissection often end up performing the exercise anyway. "Many students are uncomfortable bringing their concerns to the teachers since they are perceived as authority figures and can be intimidating, even if unintentionally," Capaldo says. Students also find themselves having to dissect under penalty of failure. Recalls one Massachusetts twelfth-grader, "This experience was against my beliefs. I feel that I failed myself and I felt like I had no choice."
"It's an educational truism that 'Teachers teach the way they were taught'," notes Capaldo, "so we're taking every opportunity to teach Massachusetts teachers about the latest CD-ROM computer technology. Workshops on alternatives to dissection have been offered at teachers conferences and professional associations, and the State House." Even skeptics are often won over once they see virtual-reality dissections such as those offered by Neotek's "CatLab" and "Digital Frog2." Users respond enthusiastically to the dazzling graphics and the wealth of anatomical, environmental, and ecological information presented in such programs. "I am very impressed with how realistic these new CD-ROM programs are," says Prudence Goodale, assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Stoughton , Massachusetts , schools. "They are incredibly accurate and authentic."
ESEC has developed a course for Massachusetts teachers that focuses on integrating computer programs and online resources into the classroom setting, assessing alternatives, and preparing for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) Tests and the Advanced Placement Biology Test. The course is tentatively scheduled for next spring, and will grant teachers the state's required professional development point credits. ESEC hopes the program will serve as a model for workshops across the country.
To engage kids' interest, an ad for NEAVS's "New Millennium of Science" dissection choice contest appeared in the June issue of Bongo Comics' The Simpsons and the very first issue of Bart Comics in August. The contest invites students to tell why their class should learn dissection the cruelty-free way, and winners are eligible to receive "Digital Frog2" CD-ROMs for their classroom and other exciting prizes for themselves.
As fall arrives and students and teachers return to the classroom and legislators reconvene, dissection choice issues will again be on many legislative agendas. When animal advocates prevail, scalpels and chemical-filled frogs, cats, rats, and fetal pigs will be considered part of history class, not science class.