Travis Burnham, a teacher at Gray-New Gloucester High School, plans this spring to offer students an alternative to the classroom procedure regarded by some as the high point — and others the low — of high school biology.
"I personally don't feel it's necessary in my class if there's another alternative," said Burnham, adding that too many pigs die to teach students a lesson that could have been learned on the computer.
What seems a break from traditional curriculum has become a trend to replace fetal pigs, cats, frogs and formaldehyde with a much cleaner virtual experience.
At least eight states have policies allowing students to opt out of dissection, according to the Humane Society of the United States. They include Florida, California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Maine.
Maine's Department of Education issued an advisory in 1990 suggesting school districts recognize students "who show a legitimate conscientious, ethical reason not to do a dissection." The state recommended schools devise policies allowing students who opt out of dissection educational alternatives.
While dissection of cats, animal hearts, eyes and brains is a considerable part of Mike Hannigan's human anatomy and physiology class at Houlton High School, students are given the option of observing only.
Hannigan said he believes a combination of actual dissection and alternatives might work best.
"I think there's a lot more important concepts that can be learned with the money and time taken up buying the specimens," he said.
But Portland High School students who use dissection in biology and anatomy classes said they were not sure they would learn as much through a computer model.
Senior Scott Cathcart recently dissected a cat as part of his anatomy and physiology class. He wants to study science in college, and said the hands-on work helped him learn about muscle and the body.
"I think it's a lot easier," he said. "You see what things look like, what they are when you're dissecting it out."
Wayne Carley, the executive director of the Virginia-based National Association of Biology Teachers, said he believes there is no substitute for dissection.
"If the point is to learn how an organism works, how the parts are connected to each other, what the heart looks like, how the muscles move the legs, where the arteries go when they leave the heart, you need the real thing," he said.
Burnham agrees that students can benefit from working with a real animal.
Students who want the actual dissection experience can transfer to another biology class during the week the unit is taught, he said.
"I would never deny students the experience," he said. "There's really no substitute, and if someone's thinking about a medical field early on, there's nothing like it."