How cutting into K-12 dissection alternatives piques student interest

Faced with a lack of school lab space and a need for more in-depth medical imaging, district leaders and science educators have been seeking alternatives to real animal dissections in class. 
By: | Issue: February, 2020
January 21, 2020
virtual dissectionVirtual dissection tables and other tools allow students to explore anatomy without the mess or the ethical issues.

Faced with a lack of school lab space and a need for more in-depth medical imaging, district leaders and science educators have been seeking alternatives to real animal dissections in class. 

Synthetic frogs and digital dissection tables are among the options that also help to accommodate students who opt out of dissecting real animals for ethical or religious reasons.

To maintain the physical interactivity with a dissection specimen, SynDaver Labs, a manufacturer of synthetic human and animal models, recently debuted a synthetic frog to replace the use of deceased, preserved frogs in classrooms. Last fall, nearly 100 SynFrogs were provided for students at Pasco County School District’s J.W. Mitchell High School in Florida, thanks in part to funding from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Similar to a preserved frog, students can cut into a synthetic frog, experience the visual features and textures of the specimen, and extract organs and bones.

The current cost of $150 per frog might be a deterrent for districts when actual frogs only cost around $10 each. However, the specimen can be “restuffed” with less costly organs if it is not deboned. In addition to full-body feline and frog models, fetal pigs, rats and other animals are in development.

Virtual exploration

The Anatomage Table, a virtual dissection table currently in use at a couple of hundred high schools nationwide, has been used to teach human anatomy in more detail as part of career and technology courses.

The gurney-sized table offers more than 1,000 human CT and MRI scans in addition to life-sized gross anatomy 3D images of two male and two female adults. The latest version also includes a canine anatomy virtual dissection and scans of more than 250 animal species. 

Students can rotate virtual bodies; make slices to expose anatomic details; and choose to isolate specific body systems, such as the skeletal or muscular systems.

The interest in virtual dissection is especially high from students looking to enter sports medicine, physical therapy, radiology technology, emergency medical technician and medical assistant training tracks, says Jake Lehman, Anatomage’s corporate sales manager.

The table’s cost ranges between $50,000 and $80,000, with a number of schools able to receive grant funding to aid in the purchase.

Expanded lessons

In addition to the practical and ethical issues, alternative and virtual dissection can offer additional learning opportunities not always available with actual specimens.

For example, Aaron Volkoff, a science teacher at Lakewood High School in Long Beach, California, uses the digital cadavers and the Anatomage case library in a health care analysis course to teach students to analyze how pathologies change normal anatomy. Students are then posed with a health challenge and must investigate what may be wrong with a particular patient and appropriate treatment options.

Anatomy tournaments in which high school student teams compete against each other on their human anatomy knowledge, make use of the virtual table. The tournaments, which began two years ago in California in partnership with the American Academic Competition Institute. Now there are nearly a dozen annual tournaments across the nation.


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