Students Skip Slime, Stink With Virtual Dissection

It's not just concern for the squeamish biology students who wince at the feel and smell of cutting into a formaldehyde-soaked animal.

Think about the frog. The pig. Or even the rat.

That's what animal rights activists in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle had in mind when they donated interactive software that replicates a frog dissection to Wheeling Park High School.

Marilyn Grindley, a member of the Ohio County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said dissecting animals "desensitizes kids. It tells them that we do not have any respect for any animal." She wants to end the practice.

Mandates in 14 states, including Virginia and Maryland, that allow biology students to opt out of dissection without jeopardizing their grades are fueling interest in virtual dissection as an alternative tool for teaching anatomy.

Grindley and fellow SPCA member Rebecca Goth say virtual dissection software such as the The Digital Frog, the version they donated, offers an alternative to students who find dissection repulsive, and can even save schools money.

But some educators, like Christopher Perillo, a science teacher in Kenosha, Wis., don't buy it. He says nothing can duplicate the smell, feel and texture of cutting into a real frog.

"It's not the same as the real thing," Perillo said. "To actually cut through the tissue, see how the skin layers feel, the textures, the way the organs look inside the body, I think that can't be duplicated.

"Its like trying to become a gardener without touching the dirt."

West Virginia is not one of opt-out states for dissections. But now that biology is a required class in West Virginia, virtual dissection is becoming an attractive option to some educators there.

Patrick Durkin, science department chair at Wheeling Park High School, said the number of students enrolled in biology will increase to about 400 this fall. Before, about 150 students studied biology each year.

With a single pig costing upward of $25 and a frog around $6, the program has the potential to save the school some money, though not a lot. Wheeling Park spends about $1,000 a year on frogs alone, he said.

By comparison, digital dissection software can be purchased for less than $1,500 from numerous companies.

In addition to The Digital Frog, schools have plenty of software to choose from, including Froguts, developed by Froguts Inc. founders Richard Hill and David Hughes, and V-Frog, developed by Tactus Technologies.

Goth and Grindley worked through the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, which negotiated with Digital Frog International in Ontario, Canada, for the SPCA to buy the software at a reduced price of about $500.

The committee has brokered similar deals for school systems in New York and California, said Dr. John Pippin, senior medical and research adviser for the nonprofit group that promotes alternatives to animal research.

Pippin said the move away from dissecting real animals mirrors what's been happening on college campuses over the past 25 years. In 1982, 107 of 124 medical schools across the country used real animals to teach anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and surgery. Today, eight of 154 accredited medical schools still do.

Wheeling Park's Durkin said it wasn't saving cash or sparing the lives of animals that appealed to him. With plans to phase out the use of real frogs over the next couple of years, Durkin said the program will enable students to spend more time on dissection outside of class.

Using a digital scalpel, students make cuts on an image on a full-screen video. Animations and interactions also allow students to see how the body works — from blood pumping through the heart to building joints that move.

And unlike a real dissection, mistakes can be easily corrected and steps repeated to reinforce lessons.

While only those students who go on to medical school will likely ever work with human cadavers, Pippin said he doesn't expect virtual software to ever replace medical schools' use of human cadavers "unless we get to the point where cadavers are not available."

"Hands-on experience with a human being burns in your brain all the things you need to learn ... but it gives you a profound respect for human life," he said. "When you kill an animal for a lab, you're wasting a life, and that's not a message you want students to learn."