Girls Heart Dissection: Changing Minds, One Virtual Scoop at a Time

Mildly Inappropriate Mommy delights in dissection…sort of…

This is a story that begins with a severed cat head. I'm just putting that out there now so that any cat people reading this blog can stop.

OK, now we may continue: Legend has it that years ago at my old high school, two biology students - upon completing the dissection of a cat - decided to parade the feline's head from room to room for their classmates to see.

There are many remarkable things about this tale, not the least of which is that one of the students was female. As in, a teenage girl - that stereotypically squeamish, delicate creature who would be expected to shrink in horror at the sight of a disembodied cat rather than play show-and-tell with it.

While the story on the whole is perverse, I found that particular part rather empowering. Girls: We can dismember animal cadavers with the best of 'em. Yeah!

It was this particular memory that came to mind when I learned of female students at one New Jersey school begging to start a dissection club. These girls were so interested in this smelly, squishy learning exercise that they actually wanted to devote time after school to it!

Students at St. Philip's Academy in Newark, N.J. take part in virtual dissections. (Credit: Karen San Giacomo)

"I actually like the hands-on stuff and touching things," 14-year-old dissection enthusiast Jiyah Worley told me.

Jiyah, an eighth grader at  St. Philip's Academy, a private school serving disadvantaged children in Newark, N.J., has already dissected a starfish and a frog and can't wait to do more. She said she always thought dissection was "cool" but some of her female peers most certainly did not. St. Philip's officials said it used to be common for female students at the school "to squeal in disgust" and disrupt the class when dissection was in the lesson plan.

That changed last year when students were introduced to something called virtual dissection.

Jiyah and her classmates began using SMARTboards - interactive blackboards - to perform simulated dissections on animals such as salmon. The fish's innards were graphically displayed on the SMARTboard and the students used on-screen tools like a virtual spoon to explore its anatomy. (They used the spoon to virtually "scoop" out the salmon's eggs.)

The experience helped female students in particular feel better prepared for real dissections, according to St. Philip's officials.

"Often times girls defer to boys when there is a hands-on activity involving science or engineering," said St. Philip's technology facilitator, Katrina Allen, in a written statement. "…The virtual dissection helped the girls to get a handle on the situation, allowing them to be more willing to assume a leadership role and get hands-on when the activity became concrete."

Virtual dissection at St. Philip's was funded by grants from the Verizon Foundation's Verizon Innovative Learning School (VILS) program. A VILS school in Boston is also conducting virtual dissections.

Jiyah said she recommends virtual dissection to anyone anxious about doing the real kind. In the meantime, she is getting excited for the real thing: St. Philip's officials have approved Jiyah and her friends' request for a dissection club and the club is set to start slicing into action this fall.

I'm told cats are not on the dissection list…for now.

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