Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

The classroom buzzed with excitement. Tables grouped together were neatly covered with plastic table cloths and paper towels in preparation for the grand experiment. It was the moment students had anxiously anticipated for over a week and, with just an hour in the school day remaining, it had finally arrived.

Was the new iPad cart about to be taken for a test drive? Was the virtual field trip to the rim of an active  volcano about to begin? Were students going to watch the latest Khan Academy video? No, no and no. Today had nothing to do with state-of-the-art technology or digital media. Today was about something seemingly classical from the age of the Renaissance and Leonardo DaVinci. Today students would explore anatomy in the most interactive, hands-on, multi-sensory way possible: Dissection.
While web-based, student-manipulatable models and flashy apps pop up more and more in cyberspace, none of these things can match the power of doing science. For the study of life science and the anatomy of living creatures, this is best accomplished when students are given the opportunity to dissect a formerly living being to see up-close and first hand the insides of a complex organism; whether it be a rat, fetal pig, frog, or in the case of Burlington Public School fifth graders, squid.
Real dissections:

  • Provide opportunities for students to steer scientific exploration and investigation.
  • Give students a multi-sensory experience that is more likely to stick in their memories.
  • Engage students in skillful procedures prevalent to many potential career choices.
  • Compel students to step outside their comfort zone of learning.
  • Break misconceptions about size or scale of plant or animal anatomy.
Virtual dissections often tout such advantages as “cleaner than classroom dissections,” with steps able to be undone should one make a mistake. Both of these arguments may be true, but are they sound arguments at all? Science is messy. From error-riddled data to the arguments of varying validity posed to explain away natural phenomena, the suggestion that science is all neat, clean and organized is fundamentally wrong!
I am not suggesting such forms of learning do not have some place in education. In fact, before performing this dissection with students, Mrs. Jamie Jaffe (to which I owe thanks and appreciation for sharing her classroom with me!) previously showed selected portions of the public giant squid dissection at the Melbourne Museum in Australia seen here. This gave students an opportunity to overcome the preliminary squeamishness around the visual appearance of a dissected squid as well as a model of professional biologists at work performing procedures they would later have to do themselves.  A few of the facts shared in the video dissection were even referenced during the actual dissection. Still, the idea that such technologies might somehow replace such opportunities in our science curriculum should be treated with great skepticism and as a disservice to our students. After all, there “ain’t nothing like the real thing.”

About MrMusselman

K-5 Science Specialist for the Burlington Public Schools of Burlington, MA.
This entry was posted in Classroom Activities, Professional Reflections and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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