June 1, 2011 -- If you are like many of us, you probably had a high school science teacher like Mr. Alexander -- a wonderful, caring man who also put you through the experience of dissecting a live frog. You may have learned a lot, but there were kids who just couldn't handle it. You were, after all, killing a real animal.
But software has come to the students' rescue, and animal-welfare groups have come to the frogs' rescue. The Animal Welfare Institute in Washington offered free software to the first 25 schools in America that agree to end dissections of real animals, and as of this morning they report four schools have taken them up on it.
"We've had a lot of teachers who were frustrated," said Serda Ozbenian of the AWI. "They didn't want to dissect animals but it was required in the curriculum."
"I don't think we're teaching kids the right thing," said Kerry Kriger of Save The Frogs, a California group that partnered with the AWI in the effort. "It teaches them that animals are disposable."
That is changing now, though not entirely for the reasons activists might prefer. Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, Calif., became the first school to accept the offer -- mainly because it was a good deal. Rights to use a computer program called Digital Frog 2.5 can cost as little as $900 for a group of students, a fraction of what it costs to buy real frogs to dissect in a high school lab.
"With finances being the way they are, we felt that this was going to be a good opportunity," said Kevin Stipp, a former science teacher who is now assistant principal at Rancho Verde. "It's as much about the species as about saving cost." Most of the 2,600 students taking science courses this year will never go into the life sciences, he said; for those who do, they'll get other chances to do dissections in college.
Dissecting frogs -- whether or not teachers value the experience their students get from seeing an animal's organs -- is a costly proposition for many schools. The frogs have to be bought and kept until they are killed. A lab is expensive to maintain. There is setup and cleanup for the teacher. And -- no small consideration -- preservatives for the decaying animals may be toxic.
"With this program you're getting the same thing," said Stipp. "You don't get to touch the organs, but visually you are getting the same experience."
That is why business is picking up at Digital Frog International of Puslinch, Ontario, near Toronto. Animal-rights groups aside, the company says school systems from all over North America are signing up for its software. The Miami-Dade school system in Florida, it said, has contracted for software for all 85 of its middle schools and high schools.
"Sure, some kids like the wet lab because they like to mash the frogs' brains," said Tracie Treahy of Digital Frog. "Others don't like it because there's a kid behind them with a scalpel.
"But you're losing perspective on what this is for. We're teaching anatomy and physiology," she said.
The company cites a 2001 doctoral dissertation at George Mason University by Christine Youngblut, which concluded, "Multimedia-based virtual dissection was more effective than hands-on dissection in helping students learn about frog anatomy. Moreover, this result was achieved when the time available for the virtual dissection was approximately 44 percent less than that available for hands-on dissection."
She did concede that a majority of students surveyed felt they were "missing out on a valuable experience" if they did not do a dissection themselves.
So how do the ninth graders at Rancho Verde High School feel about dissection by computer? No answer yet; the software won't be rolled out there until fall.
But frog populations are declining in many parts of the world, said Kriger of Save the Frogs.
"If we can envision a time when there are no dissections," he said, "kids will understand that life is valuable."