Animal dissection is one of the most controversial topics in science education. Scientists, teachers, animal rights activists, and parents and students all have a opinion about whether animal dissection is necessary or even educational. But despite strong arguments on both sides, it remains a core part of many schools’ biology curriculum.

In addition to controversies about the ethics and utility of live animal dissection, many schools now also face financial pressures that make the cost of equipping classrooms and science labs with dissection kits and frog specimens prohibitive.

And that’s where the ubiquitous phrase “There’s an app for that” comes in. The educational software maker Punflay provides one alternative to live animal dissections. Punflay has built dissection apps, available on iPad and desktop, which simulate the dissection process. Currently Punflay has two versions: frog and rat dissection.

Punflay’s apps provide step-by-step instructions that move a student through the actual dissection process. The app simulates that process and uses virtualized dissection instruments — pins, scalpels, markers, and forceps — just as students would in real life.

As students work through the various anatomical systems, they can view 3D images of the internal organs. They can also learn information about different types of frogs, frogs’ life cycle, comparisons of frogs’ and humans’ anatomy, as well as annotated descriptions of the various frog organs.

Punflay’s apps have been nominated for several educational awards (and was awarded PETA’s Mark Twain Ethical Science Award too). But while it has provided a cheaper and more ethical alternative to live animal dissection, does a virtual dissection process really give students the same experience as hands-on learning? While these apps may give students an accurate depiction of what a frog or rat’s anatomy looks like, can the experience of cutting into an animal offer the same learning experience?

These questions aren’t new as there have been virtual dissection apps for over a decade. As the technology improves to make these educational experiences better, will hands-on practice be necessary?

  • Kblummers

    I am happy that so many apps and simulations are available for dissections. My classes still look forward to doing the classical hands-on dissection. Students always have the option of simulation if they prefer and several do choose to learn this way. I obtain specimens from a local meat shop. The organs and fetuses are only discarded anyway. Is the simulation really the same? Well you can learn the same parts, but clicking a mouse is quite different than handling a variety of dissection tools.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately, such “virtual alternatives” are only substitutes for the textbook, not the lab. 1)The best definition of an object such as a stomach is the stomach itself, such as the lining (tripe) in a grocery store and not a picture, 2)Learning is very multisensory and touch is extremely valuable a critical skill that is called “palpation” in the health community, and students learn much by feeling. When they say, “Let me see that,” they hold out hands to touch. 3)Actually taking something apart provides tremendous respect for it, not callous disregard. It is the people who have never seen the inside of an operating engine who let the oil run dry. 4)We have no idea who among our students will enter a medical career and real experiences are motivating. Many nurses and doctors got their first desire to enter the field from real lab experiences. 5)Only real lab work provide real results. Simulations provide textbook perfect examples while any good anatomy lab will have a cat with four kidneys and the teacher will call everyone over to see the variation. We have come to expect “perfect” outcomes when real live provides variation. 6)The actual cost of dissection materials is actually not high, compared to the high costs of computers and smartphone electronics and the continuous upgrading required over time. Animal rights folks have touted various programs as cheaper alternatives to substitute for real animals, only to see the MS-DOS and 3-inch floppy programs obsolete in a few years and the upgrading costs exceed the real material. In addition, the frogs come from the frog leg industry and do not deplete natural populations, the feral cats would otherwise be incinerated, etc. Where is the unethical aspect of using these animals for valuable educational experiences? Veteran teachers know that the genuine lab provides memorable experiences that the media do not. etc.

  • Mr. K

    I’m a former biology teacher and current education technology specialist.  I have been asked this question numerous times with people expecting I would be for the virtual dissection and nothing could be further from the truth.  True dissection is far messier and highlights the difference between the theory of the book and the reality and variation of living things.  Smaller this, larger that.  Dissection requires some skill and finesse that only can be done in the real world with real animals.

  • Mr. G.

     Parents, students, and administration (both local and at the state level) all call for more hands on activities and tout hands on as the best form of learning science.  How can they argue that clicking a mouse is hands on?  I also have found in my many years teaching science that this is far from the most controversial thing that I do.  Teaching about drugs, reproduction, and evolution all are more controversial than dissecting.

  • Jameslovatt

    I agree with all above, You cannot replace an actual practical, however the app could be used for a reflection tool post ‘doing’ the practical, this gives students a chance to solidify the learning experience, also the teacher could make reference back to the practical at a later point using the app as a way of introducing a new topic or revising the old.

    Technology cannot and should not replace core teaching – it should only be used as a tool to aid learning and if it doesn’t add something to the learning – LEAVE IT OUT

    Lecturer in Science Education 

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