Dissection alternatives for high school biology

What do you think of when you hear the word dissection?

Does the word bring back memories of stinky formaldehyde and slimy frogs?

Do you feel a bit queasy?

If so, you’re not alone.

Parents, teachers, and students are pretty divided when it comes to the topic of dissections.  It seems as though folks either think dissections are great or they hate them.

No matter how you feel about dissections, there’s no denying that they are a great tool for learning about animal anatomy.  For one thing, hands-on activities are always more effective at making learning stick than studying material in a textbook.  

Diagram of the internal organs of a fish
Dissections allow students to better understand animal anatomy and how all of the organ systems work together

In high school, students typically perform dissection labs toward the end of the school year after they have learned about how life is organized from atom to cell, from cell to tissue, from tissue to organ, and from organ to organ system.  Performing dissections is not only a right of passage, but it also is a fantastic way to understand how all the parts of an organism work together.

While there’s no denying that students can learn a lot from performing dissections, there may be reasons to seek out alternatives to using real animal specimens.  Some students are ethically opposed to dissecting real animals. For others, the cost of specimens may be an issue. I’ve also seen students literally turn green at the sight (and smell) of preserved specimens.  Personally, I’ve never forced a student to dissect a real specimen if they were opposed to it.

Fortunately, there are some great alternatives to performing dissections on real specimens.

Dissection Alternatives

Video Dissections

Maybe you’re not opposed to the idea of dissections, but the logistics aren’t in your favor.  

Luckily, YouTube abounds with dissection videos.  (Who knew?)

In my short time looking, I found many high-quality dissection videos, many made by teachers.  You can find videos for many types of animal dissections, from earthworms to alligators. 

Here are examples of some of the dissection videos I found.  Not only do the videos walk the viewer through the process of dissection, but they also explain the function of each part of the animal anatomy. 

These videos would be great to use even if your kids perform a real dissection.  They could watch a video while they go through the steps of dissecting, using the video as a guide. 

Virtual Dissections

If you’d like your student to get a feel for performing a dissection without doing the real thing, virtual dissections may be the way to go.

The Science Bank is the most complete site I’ve found for virtual dissection resources.  Here, you can find links to online dissection resources for many different animals (including crayfish, frogs, earthworm, grasshopper, and fetal pick) as well as individual organ dissections (cow eye, sheep heart, and sheep brain for example).  

I confess that I was a bit disappointed with the free options available in this category. When I imagined a virtual dissection, I pictured an animated simulation through which a student could go through the process of dissecting.  What I found instead were websites that described the steps of dissections alongside pictures of a real dissection. 

There are realistic online dissection simulations available, but they aren’t free.  That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to find Expandable Mind tutorials.

Expandable Mind (eMind) has a number of high-quality tutorials that include a chance to explore the internal and external anatomy of a number of animals, including invertebrates (earthworm, squid, starfish) and vertebrates (frog, fish, cat, and fetal pig). While some features of the tutorials are available for free, you do have to pay to get the full experience.  Fortunately, the price is very affordable, especially for the quality of the virtual labs.

Virtual dissection simulations available on the Expandable Mind website
On the Expandable Mind website, there are many virtual animal dissection simulations available

For instance, the price to access the entire virtual frog library is only $5.99. Alternatively, for that same price, you could choose the cat, the fish library (which includes a lamprey, dogfish, and yellow perch), the invertebrate library (including earthworm, squid, crayfish, and sea star) or the fetal pig. (Note that this costs less than the price of a single preserved dissection specimen). There is also the option to pay for access to all of the animals for $19.99.  

I chose to check out the eMind frog library and was impressed with the quality of the content.   The graphics were excellent, and the simulation was honestly fun to use. There are lots of activities to help students identify the different organs. For instance, as the student explores each organ system, they use virtual tweezers to sort the organs by name. 

Screenshot taken while using the eMind Frog Tutorial virtual dissection simulation
The eMind software was easy to use and very informative.