In New Hampshire schools, dissection opt-out an option
Buddy Hughes, senior, works with a scalpal to dissect a frog as group partners, Nancy Taban, senior, Ivan Niyomugabo, junior, and Matt Gilliland, senior, look on. Merrimack Valley students work to dissect a frog during their zoology class, a survey course that looks at the nine phyla of animals, on Friday morning, April 4, 2014. Amphibians are towards the end of their dissecting, followed by reptile, birds, and mammals, depending on availability of funds. A recently passed policy from the state Board of Education allows students to opt-out of dissection in public schools. If they opt-out, some students will still observe, life science teacher Jamie Hight said, while others are given alternative assignments. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
The dissection of animals has been a staple of high school classrooms for decades.
It’s a hands-on way of teaching students anatomy and the inner workings of animals compared with the human body.
But some consider it a little too gross or have ethical reasons for not wanting to participate.
Last month, the state Board of Education adopted a sample policy that gives districts guidance on how to craft a student dissection opt-out policy. The policy is optional, and the state does not keep track of districts that choose to have one, said board Chairman Tom Raffio.
Some local educators said allowing students to choose whether to participate in dissections has existed for years, but the policy might serve to complement what is already in place.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve never forced students. If a kid doesn’t want to dissect something, we would never make them dissect,” said Lise Bofinger, a science teacher and department chairwoman at Concord High School.
New Hampshire is the last New England state to adopt an optional opt-out policy, and the 21st to do so in the country, according to People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, which reached out to the Board of Education about drafting a policy.
“Certainly, we’ve seen some momentum over the past couple of years,” said Justin Goodman, director of PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department. “But it’s something that’s been on peoples’ radars for a long time.”
The opt-out language was approved about a year after PETA first contacted the board, Raffio said.
The policy says a student, for any reason, may choose to replace an activity that “causes harm to animals, whether they be already dead, such as in dissections, or living, such as animal testing, with an alternative activity that does not.” Teachers should announce the option to all students on the first day of class and include it in the course syllabus, according to the policy.
Educators say opt-outs for ethical or other reasons are rare.
But there are students, such as Merrimack Valley High School junior Kya-Lyn Clark, who appreciate the option.
During Clark’s freshman year, her biology class dissected frogs.
“It grossed me out, mostly the smell. I couldn’t, like, be near it at all,” she said. Instead, she chose to watch the dissection while taking notes.
“I didn’t want to be the person with my hands in there,” she said. “I watched for most of it, but when they picked it up, I couldn’t really handle that.”
The experience and knowing she could opt out made her more comfortable this fall when her zoology class dissected frogs. But still, she kept her distance, just helping to pin down the frog’s legs.
“I didn’t touch it, but I got close to it,” Clark said. “I did more than I did two years ago.”
Freshman biology is the only required course at Merrimack Valley that includes dissection, and it’s of a frog. Students in upper-level electives, such as zoology, anatomy and physiology, work with grasshoppers, worms, crayfish and cats. At Concord High School, students dissect animals, including squid, in Advanced Placement biology and anatomy and physiology.
Dissections are done in groups of three or four, which teachers said allows students to participate without being the one who makes an incision.
“You can’t really say that the only choice for a student is to do this or not do this,” said DeAna Irving, area coordinator and science teacher at Merrimack Valley. “It’s how involved a student wants to be as the process is happening. The extreme of that is not being involved at all.”
If a student chooses to not take part in a dissection, they are given work sheets, textbooks and online resources to draw conclusions reached by their classmates.
After telling his teacher he didn’t want to dissect a frog in biology class earlier this year, Merrimack Valley freshman Zac Montague was given the same study questions as other students. He was able to scour textbooks and the internet for answers, and while some answers to detailed questions were hard to find, he said he felt comfortable opting out.
“It was the thought of poking around in the front, and the smell was driving me crazy,” he said.
Now that New Hampshire has adopted the policy, PETA said it will use grant money to donate state-of-the-art virtual dissection software to the state’s educators. Some of the programs have been shown to be better than real dissections at teaching anatomy, said Goodman.
Still, some say it’s difficult to simulate the hands-on learning of dissection.
Kristin Anderson, a life sciences teacher at Merrimack Valley, likened it to a photo of a new car. The interior may be visible, but it’s impossible to know what it’s like until you’re inside.
“If you are looking at a two-dimensional picture, they are always idealized,” she said. Whereas a class whose students actually dissect six cats could come to six different conclusions because of anomalies and differences in the animals, she added.
“The questions and inquiries that are promoted really enhances their learning. It’s a higher level of thinking,” Anderson said.
The Board of Education vetted other proposals and met with stakeholders several times before crafting the policy, Raffio said.
“It was a very scientific process for 12 months. I think the model policy is fair to the animals, so to speak, and it allows each local school district to either adopt or not,” he said. “For local school districts who still want to have dissection of frogs, they can.”
(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)