Law enables dissection alternatives

DALLAS -- Governor Kulongoski has signed the Dissection Alternatives Bill into law. Now it is left to educators to figure out ways to enact it.

The legislation (Senate Bill 383), mandates that teachers who use dissection as a teaching tool tell their students about alternative assignments that don't require hands-on dissecting.

Most biology teachers in the Dallas school district say they have always allowed students alternatives to dissection.

Janelle Ussery has been teaching biology at Dallas High for 15 years. She said that she understands some students find it morally or physically repugnant to handle and cut apart dead organisms, but she still requires her students complete their assignment.

"In the past, if the kid said 'I don't want to dissect.' I said: well you don't have to dissect, but you do still need to do the lab, so what you can do is sit next to your friend or lab partner and take notes, but you don't have to touch anything if you don't feel comfortable with that."

Now Ussery sends out letters to the parents of any student being asked to dissect in class. The letter explains that there is a dissection planned and if the student does not want to participate, he or she will be given photographs to work from.

Ussery believes that the photo option will dissuade any students who are only objecting to dissection to get out of the lab assignment.

"You give kids options, they may think, 'Well, I'm going to get out of something,' " Ussery said.

"But once they realize they still need to do the lab, they may opt to watch a dissection rather than just looking at a picture.

For students who really don't want to dissect, there have always been options. Now I just have to be clearer about what they are."

The teachers at LaCreole Middle School are in a slightly better situation. Thanks to a fund-raising drive to improve the library's computer lab, students who chose to opt out will be allowed to do an online "virtual" dissection.

"And if that isn't OK with them, then they are allowed to do a report on the animal that we are studying," sixth grade biology teacher Mary Tharp said.

"However, my personal opinion is that it's important to have students use the skills that are required for dissection ... it is very important and introduces them to something they will encounter in high school or college if the chose to go on and study science."

Tharp also said that the tactile experience of dissection cannot be underestimated. Many students learn best through hands-on experience. Tharp said it isn't uncommon for her to have students who have gone on to high school and college come back and tell her how meaningful the dissection experience was.

"They come back years later and say, 'Hey, Mrs. Tharp, are you still doing dissections? 'Cause that was really the coolest thing we ever did,'" Tharp said.

There is also the limitation of technology when considering the difference between hands-on and virtual dissection.

While there are highly sophisticated virtual dissection computers being developed and used at top universities, their dissemination into the lower levels of academia are still years off.

Educators agree that virtual, on-line dissection is better than photographs and allows students to learn even if they have serious objections to dissection. But it is still a one-dimensional image.

Teachers and professors argue that any serious biologist still needs to feel and see first-hand to fully learn.

"We do a section on the eye where we dissect sheep's eyes. In it we talk about eye safety and about how strong the eye tissue is. When they cut into the eye they are just shocked by that, and that is something they wouldn't get through virtual dissection," Tharp said.

It should be pointed out that someone had to dissect an animal to acquire the virtual images that students will use in lue of physical dissection. Which is why many LaCreole anti-dissection students will further opt out and choose to do a presentation.

Kelly Peterson, a spokesperson for the Portland branch of the Humane Society of the United States, said that the law ensures educators will be sensitive to the beliefs of students who morally object to dissection and really have no interest in science beyond what they may learn in grade school.

"Student choice policies provide all students an opportunity to enjoy and excel in biology classes. Studies have even shown that students who use alternatives learn anatomy and physiology as well, or better than, as those who dissect," Peterson asserted.

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