Making the Leap

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How COVID-19 Led Biology Teachers to Try Humane Dissection Tools…and What This Could Mean for the Future

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, many schools made the decision to cancel faceto-face classes and move instruction online. Science educators who had planned classroom dissection exercises for their students had to decide whether to change plans and cancel lessons pertaining to dissection or use dissection alternatives, including web-based programs, to deliver their course content online.

NAVS has long touted the advantages of working with humane dissection tools as alternatives to “traditional” dissection. These tools have been widely available for many years and have become more complex with advancements in technology. Importantly, dozens of studies that have compared the efficacy of student learning when using animal dissection or alternatives have concluded that students using animal dissection alternatives perform as well as or better than students using animal models. Humane dissection alternatives can also be interactive, providing students with three-dimensional views of animal organs, background information about the specimen being viewed, and anatomical comparisons of animals and humans, enhancing students’ learning experiences. And many of these virtual tools are available for free or for a nominal fee.

Five years ago, NAVS conducted a nationwide survey of biology educators to learn more about their use of—and attitudes toward—dissection and dissection alternatives. The survey revealed that about 70% of biology educators already used alternatives to animal dissection in some capacity, with 36% using them in place of once live animals and 34% using them in conjunction with animal-based dissection. For many biology educators this spring, however, using alternative tools in place of dissecting animal specimens was their only option.

Despite humane dissection alternatives being widely available and effective teaching resources, our 2015 survey revealed that
about 60% of teachers felt that information about these tools is not widely disseminated. This led us to wonder how biology instructors navigated the transition to online teaching five years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To better understand how the pandemic affected science educator plans to conduct classroom animal dissection exercises
this spring, we conducted a new nationwide survey of biology teachers and asked about their experience as classes transitioned
online. Specifically, we wanted to learn more about which dissection alternatives educators used the most, how teachers identified those options, and whether the educators planned to continue using these tools for in-person or online learning. We also examined student performance on post-lab assessments using humane dissection tools compared to the historical performance of students who used preserved animal specimens.

To that end, we contacted 27,000 biology teachers across the country this past August and asked them to respond to an online survey. Multiple choice and free response questions addressed the ways in which their delivery of course content changed during the
COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the use of humane dissection tools. More than 2,100 teachers responded to the survey, most of
whom were teaching at the high school level.

Our survey revealed that, prior to schools moving to online learning, 72% of biology educators had planned on having their students participate in classroom animal dissection exercises in the spring of 2020. The pandemic led about 67% of educators to cancel
their scheduled dissection exercises completely. However, 29% of the educators transitioned to dissection alternatives for remote learning.

Most instructors relied on videos of dissections or used virtual dissection resources for online learning. Some of the most commonly used resources were ones from FlinnPrep, Whitman College, Biology Corner, EdPuzzle, McGraw Hill, PBS, Glencoe and eMind. A smaller percentage of educators relied on worksheets or paper models instead.

Sixty percent of instructors were already familiar with the dissection alternative they selected before using it this spring, while 37% of educators had not used the alternative before. Most instructors identified which tool to use by looking online, while fewer instructors made their selection based on ease of use or personal preference, used resources they had relied on in the past, selected resources that aligned with their curriculum or textbook, or relied on a colleague to help them make that decision. When asked if they would consider using nonanimal dissection tools again, the majority of instructors expressed interest in continuing to do so, either remotely or in person. However, the majority of respondents indicated that they would use these tools in conjunction with animal dissection
rather than as a replacement for it.

Looking at the performance of students who used dissection alternatives while remote learning this past spring compared to the
historical performance of students who used a preserved animal specimen on post-lab assessments, respondents were split fairly
evenly in their assessments, with 33% percent of educators indicating that students using alternatives performed as well as or better on dissection-related assessments compared to students using preserved animal specimens, 35% feeling that students using the alternatives performed worse on dissection-related assessments and 32% being unable to make that comparison. It is worth mentioning that this comparison was casual and observational in nature and was not supported by accompanying data. It is possible that overall student performance and educators’ assessments were affected by the move to distance learning, due to general issues with internet connectivity or access to computers or tablets, although our survey did not directly address this question.

While teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges for many educators, it also gave science teachers who had previously not worked with humane dissection tools as replacements for animal dissection specimens an opportunity to do so. This push to have educators think outside of the box with respect to traditional animal dissection may help transform science education for the better and may reduce educators’ reliance on animal dissection specimens in the future, particularly when in-person classes resume.

Considering that many of the animals used for dissection are harvested and killed specifically for biological study, reducing the use of animal dissection specimens would be an effective way to incorporate Russell and Burch’s 3 Rs principle—reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use—in education. In the coming months, NAVS will be launching a new, comprehensive online resource showcasing and offering access to the latest state-of-the-art humane science teaching tools. This new resource will demonstrate the breadth of dissection alternatives available and provide guidance to educators who want to replace dissection specimens in their remote and in-person science classes.