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.
For each part of the frog anatomy, there are videos to watch.  In this video, you could actually watch the process of peristalsis as food is pushed through the intestines.
For each part of the frog anatomy, there are videos to watch. In this video, you could actually watch the process of peristalsis as food is pushed through the intestines.

For each organ, there is an option to view a short video related to that organ. 

Not only does the student get to explore the frog’s external anatomy, its mouth, and digestive, circulatory, reproductive and skeletal systems, there are also four mini labs. 

Each eMind tutorial comes with additional mini-labs that allow students to perform virtual experiments on each animal
Each eMind tutorial comes with additional mini-labs that allow students to perform virtual experiments on the animal

In these mini lab simulations, students can investigate frog breathing rate, alimentary system, heart rate,  and muscle contraction.

A printable anatomy key and  review questions are also included.  

And if that wasn’t enough, a bonus library is included with purchase.  In the eMind Animacules simulations, your student can explore the microscopic world including blood cells, mitotic cells, yeast, plant cross sections, bacteria, amoeba, and more. 

It’s like having your very own microscope and a variety of live microorganisms to study! As a microbiologist, I was seriously geeking out with this bonus simulation!

The eMind Animacules and Other Cells simulation allows students to explore all sorts of microscopic life.
The eMind Animacules and Other Cells simulation allows students to explore all sorts of microscopic life as well as cellular processes such as cytoplasmic streaming and plasmolysis.

As I said, this program is incredibly affordable considering all that you get for the price, and it’s one I would definitely recommend to anyone with a student taking biology or life science.

3-D Scienstructable Dissection Models

A couple of years ago, I stumbled across one of my favorite resources for exploring animal anatomy: 3-D dissection models (Scienstructables) from Getting Nerdy with Mel and Gerdy.

Mel and Gerdy—veteran classroom teachers— created these printable dissection models for a variety of animal specimens.  Currently, they have models available for earthworm, cow eye, frog, fetal pig, crayfish, shark, grasshopper, starfish, squid, rat, perch, cat, clam, sponge, bird, and snake.

Each set comes with printable templates for the animal (which can be printed in color or in black and white), a PowerPoint presentation, and assembly instructions. 

Each Scienstructable 3-D dissection model comes with an animal template that can be printed in black and white or in color.  If printed in black and white, the student can color the organs in using the included key.
Each Scienstructable comes with an animal template that can be printed in black and white or in color. If printed in black and white, the student can color the organs in using the included key.

After the templates are printed onto cardstock, the student uses the directions to identify each organ and list each organ’s function using the included worksheet. They then follow the instructions to assemble their 3-D model.

A student's 3-D crayfish dissection model.  These are a great alternative to real dissections.
A student’s 3-D crayfish model
A student's 3-D frog dissection model.  The Scienstructables are great because they are designed with multiple layers.  Organs can be moved to reveal the organs below.  Once the 3-D model is closed, it stores flat and can be saved in a notebook for future use.
A student’s 3-D frog model. The Scienstructables are great because they are designed with multiple layers. Organs can be moved to reveal the organs below. Once the 3-D model is closed, it stores flat and can be saved in a notebook for future use.

These models can be used in a variety of ways.  Students can use the models in place of dissections, and will gain a very thorough understanding of animal anatomy and the function of the various organs.  Personally, I’ve used these 3-D models alongside animal dissections. I have students construct the 3-D model as homework before dissection day. They then bring their assembled model to class and use it as a guide while they perform the dissection.  In my experience, completing the 3-D model prior to dissecting helps students familiarize themselves with the animal anatomy ahead of time, and so they are more prepared for the dissection.  

Synthetic Specimens

 SynFrogTM is a life-like, anatomically-correct frog made from synthetic materials

Recently, a new option for animal dissections has become available: synthetic frogs.  

The SynFrogTM is a life-like, anatomically-correct frog made from synthetic materials.  These frogs look and feel like the real thing, so students can get the full experience of frog dissection.  

The only downside is the cost:  a single SynFrogTM costs around $150. The synthetic frogs are reported to be reusable, which helps with the cost. SynDaver—the company responsible for SynFrogTM — has other synthetic animal specimens available as well.

Dissections Using Real Animal Specimens

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In addition to the alternatives listed above, students can of course perform dissections on real animal specimens.  Dissecting can really open a student’s eyes to the complexity of the body, and help them truly understand how the organs and tissues of an organism are connected and work together.

Kristin Moon assisting with dissections
My son performing a frog dissection

Dissection specimens are available from many vendors, including Nasco, Carolina Biological, Home Science Tools, and Amazon

While many of us associate the smell of formaldehyde with dissections, today it is possible to buy specimens preserved in Carolina’s Perfect Solution ® —a proprietary fixative that lacks the smell. 

It is also possible to buy specimens that have been injected with colored latex so that the veins and arteries are easy to identify. Many specimens come with a dissection guide to walk the student through the dissection process.

If you do plan to have your student dissect a real animal specimen, be sure they have the tools they need.  It’s important to have appropriate tools to perform a dissection, and dissection kits are very affordable. You can also buy dissection pans, but I’ve found that in a pinch, a styrofoam tray leftover from the grocery store works as a nice substitute.  Your students will also appreciate a pair of disposable gloves.

Dissections don’t have to be something to dread in the high school years.No matter what option you choose—video dissections, virtual dissections, synthetic specimens, 3-D models, or real animals—exploring animal anatomy is a great tool for learning life science.

Is there any other resource you’d add to this list? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get it added.

Related Posts

Here are some additional resources I found as I was writing this post.

The Benefits of Paper 3D Dissection Models

Biology.com has a whole page dedicated to anatomy and dissection resources that includes coloring sheets, quizzes, videos, and more.

Here’s a video that describes the anatomy of an earthworm.

Here is a video that documents the process as frogs develop from eggs over the course of 7 weeks.

PhET: an Excellent Free Resource for Learning Math and Science: PhET is a great source for virtual learning. With game-like simulations in multiple subjects (including math, chemistry, biology, physics, and earth science), this is bound to become one of your go-to sources for learning.

Dissections are a fantastic way for students to learn about animal anatomy.  These days, there are many alternatives to classic dissections.  With video dissections, virtual dissections, and realistic 3-D dissection models, your student can get the dissection experience without the mess of using a real animal.

2 thoughts on “Dissection Alternatives for High School Biology”

  1. i watched a couple of shark ones with the lad last year. Fascinating. We don’t get sharks here in Ontario. 🙂 The fish they ate…. and one had something really odd inside (can’t recall what) so he was very curious about it.

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