Dissection, for many high school students, is a common activity in high school science classes. The activity —making incisions, peeling apart muscle layers of a once-alive animal—can be eye-opening. It can also be scary.
Pam Osenkowski does not remember her first dissection fondly. In her early middle school days, she remembers a fellow classmate fainting. For her own part, she just wanted to pair up with someone that was keen on the activity, so she “wouldn’t get in trouble… or a bad grade. Subject-matter wise, I didn’t learn anything.”
What stuck with the student was not newly learned body parts, but rather the stress of having to get through the class.
Anna Madsen had a similar experience in the classroom, in which she “had to accept” doing dissection. She became convinced that it wasn’t a necessary part of the education process. The experience spurred her to finish her biology degree at the University of British Columbia, albeit via coursework in Animal Welfare and “Compassionate Conservation.” These courses informed her on the prevalence of animal cruelty across several industries. It made her wonder: is dissection really necessary?
Today, Madsen and Osenkowski, work for the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), an organization that answers that simple question with a resounding “no.”
The Chicago-based organization's BioLEAP initiative exists to help connect teachers and students to non-animal learning methods.As a research assistant, Madsen’s work includes tracking school districts that give students a right to choose dissection in the classroom. She also works with teachers on projects and art classes that support compassion for animals.
While she is currently teaching Biology at Loyola University, Osenkowski has been a science advisor at NAVS for 11 years. She helps conduct surveys with biology teachers and has a variety of independent research projects related to dogs and primates. She also tracks new developments in cell-based and computer models, which she hopes to continue to incorporate in science curricula across the country. Her first assignment for NAVS was a project to retire chimpanzees from biomedical research. It reminded her of a paper she wrote in a high-school English class, in which she argued for the inherent rights of chimpanzees. She happily admits, years later, the paper “kind of came full circle” with NAVS.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented the two educators with an opportunity. Suddenly, it became more difficult to meet in person, and thus, more difficult to do dissections. In light of the logistical challenges, teachers began to look for alternatives, such as the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System models.
Educators “started to realize the advantages,” says Osenkowski. First, the learning advantages: students can repeat activities with clay “until they learn what they need to learn.” (To this end, models often come with additional explanations on each body part’s form and function.) Second, the economic advantages: with non-animal models, school districts could stop worrying about buying specimens, to be used and then discarded, year after year. And third: the scare factor for the students vanished. After all, passing (or stressing) out is “not conducive to learning,” says the NAVS advisor.
What does the research say?
Osenkowski estimates that, based on a student survey conducted in 2015, that “30 to 40 percent” of students did not want to partake in dissection—a statistic that does not show up in the teacher surveys she conducts. It suggests the difficulty of speaking out against practices ingrained in the education system.
Madsen and Osenkowski recognize their work is primarily about changing mindsets. But data is on their side. Study after study has been published confirming the efficacy of humane teaching methods. (Anatomy in Clay® Learning System also provides a worksheet of research that has been done to this end.)
When teachers hear about humane alternatives to dissection, they are “open-minded,” says Osenkowski. The two researchers have seen that much of teachers’ reluctance in getting off dissection is the fear of losing the tactile aspect of learning. Yet, at least with Anatomy in Clay® models, that is not an issue. What could be more hands-on than building anatomy out of clay?
Osenkowski says she has “no doubt that students can do amazingly well if they use a non-animal teaching method.” The research suggests that students reach the same level of learning outcomes via dissection or non-animal methods. (If anything, student retention rate is higher in the non-animal methods.)
If you are a teacher, get in touch with the National Anti-Vivisection society! Madsen and Osenkowski are always interested in collaborating with fellow educators to generate tools that teachers find helpful. And psst—talk to them about the BioLeap grant. You could qualify for $1000 towards purchasing non-animal learning products for your classroom!